Michelle Smith Feature: Title seeking women's basketball teams meet Monday

There’s no avoiding it.

Monday night’s nationally televised matchup between Oregon and UCLA, a game that will have huge implications on the race for the Pac-12 title, is a big deal.

“You can argue this is the biggest game in Ducks history,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves.

But there’s also no avoiding this: both the Ducks and the Bruins, tied atop the Pac-12 standings along with Stanford at 12-2 with four games to go, have tough games leading into Monday’s showdown. And overlooking that fact could have major consequences.

“We don’t even know that game exists right now,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “I have forbidden them to talk about it, even in the locker room.”

First up for the Bruins is No. 15 Oregon State at Gil Coliseum, which has turned into one of the toughest environments in the Pac-12 for the road team.

“Oregon State is so good. We played so well against them the first time,” Close said.  “But now we are going to their place, and we are going to have to be that much better.”

Oregon, meanwhile, will be taking on a USC team that has won four of six and putting itself back into the NCAA picture after a rocky start to conference play.

But the Ducks are prepared, not only for a tough weekend, but for everything else that lies ahead. Sweeping the Washington schools on the road was a strong bounce-back after last weekend’s loss at home to Stanford, a game that dropped the Ducks into the three-way tie for first.

“This team has been amazingly resilient. After both of our losses, we’ve bounced back strong. We bounced back after our non-conference losses too,” Graves said. “This group has been elite in terms of their preparation. I think we still have one of the loosest teams in the conference. I hear that from people who have seen us practice. And I think that’s a good thing. Considering our youth, it’s incredible.”

The Ducks are getting more age and experience back on the court with the return of Lexi Bando, who missed seven games with a stress fracture in her leg. Bando returned to the court on Sunday and played 12 minutes, scoring nine points.

Graves said Bando will likely see increased minutes this coming weekend.

“Probably 15-18 this week,” Graves said. “But we are not going to throw her back into the (starting) lineup yet. The reality is, she probably isn’t going to be able to practice the rest of the year. But we were better when we were playing with a smaller lineup.”

Yet Graves found value in the way his team played for almost a month without Bando on the floor.

“Our change of style has been OK, it’s worked for us too,” Graves said. “Having Mallory (McGwire) in there gave us a more power offense, but it hurt our shooting performances, for sure.”

Graves said his team is not going to “out-trick anyone” at this late point in the season. But confidence is key. Not to mention, taking the opportunities to get rest for players like Sabrina Ionescu and Maite Carzola, who had that opportunity last weekend.

“I want us to be fresh,” Graves said. “Some time off is really going to work for them.

Monday’s game doesn’t have nearly the importance, if we don’t take care of business against USC. We’ve been able to compartmentalize, which has been a great thing about this team. I don’t think the moment will be too big for us. We’ve played in some big games.”

For their part, the Bruins are healthy, if not a little battered in the dog days of February.

“Nobody is completely healthy this time of year,” Close said. “But we are doing the little things to keep them mentally and physically fresh.”

And also appealing to the dreams they had as young basketball players, dreams that included playing in high-profile games like Monday’s matchup, and winning titles.

“I want us to enjoy the crap out of this,” Close said. “This is why they came to UCLA, for opportunities like this. This is what we wanted. But I’ve also reminded them that only one team that went to the Final Four last year won their conference. We want this badly, but focusing on the wrong things could be a distraction.”

Close said she sees her seniors starting to dial in on the fact that the postseason is right around the corner. Following Sunday’s win against Arizona State, senior point guard Jordin Canada pulled her teammates together before the coaches even got into the locker room, and the message was simple: everything matters. What they eat, how they rest, the way they prepare.

“That tells you that she’s aware. She knows. This team knows they have a great opportunity,” Close said. “They brought a level of urgency against Arizona State. I could see it, it’s here.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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