Michelle Smith Feature: Previewing Oregon v UCLA Pac-12 WBB Tournament semifinal game
The stakes just keep climbing between Oregon and UCLA.
They can’t get much higher than they will be on Saturday night at KeyArena at 6 p.m. when the two nationally elite programs clash in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals for a spot in the championship game.
Top-seeded Oregon is the Pac-12 regular-season champion for the first time since 2000, a title that many predicted heading into this season would belong to UCLA. But the Ducks have never reached the title game of this tournament and have reached the semifinal for only the third time in program history after overwhelming Colorado in Friday’s quarterfinal.
Fourth-seeded UCLA won its lone Pac-12 Conference Tournament title in 2006 in San Jose against Stanford and reached the title game in 2010, 2013 and 2016 without winning again. The Bruins needed a nail-biting win over fifth-seeded California to take the next step.
“The first two games were epic so it's only fitting that we play a third time,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “These are two teams with a lot of skilled talent on display. We must play better defensively or it will be really difficult to win the third game against them.”
UCLA is looking to do something it hasn't been able to do this season, beat the multi-dimensional Ducks. The two powerhouses have gone toe-to-toe twice this season already, playing a pair of compelling games in which the Bruins came out on the losing end. Game three promises to be an epic battle featuring some of the best players in the country.
At Pauley Pavilion on January 7, Oregon pulled out a 70-61 win, Oregon needing to ice the game in the final minute with a 3-pointer by senior Lexi Bando.
Then, less than two weeks ago on February 19, Oregon and UCLA battled in a great offensive game that showcased some of the conference’s highest-profile stars and ended with a Ducks 101-94 win in overtime that propelled them to their first conference title since 2000.
“How cool is this?” said UCLA coach Cori Close after her team advanced with a tough win over Cal. “We are in March. We are playing in the conference tournament, and two top 10 teams are battling it out. It’s a real privilege.”
Close said her team will learn from their previous experiences and the way those losses felt.
“Oregon is a really good basketball team and I think both of our teams are really poised to make really deep runs in the NCAA Tournament,” Close said. “But we have a very competitive group. I think this game is going to come down to which team can learn from past situations and put in place small adjustments. Players make plays in March. I’m going to try to stay out of the way and let them do their job.”
Oregon punched their ticket to the semifinal with a record-setting 84-47 win over No. 9 seed Colorado, a game in which the Ducks featured their ability to connect from the perimeter with 13 3-pointers, a new Pac-12 Tournament record.
The Ducks led start to finish and got 21 points from Satou Sabally, the newly minted Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Sabally was 8-of-11 from the floor with five 3-pointers.
UCLA senior Jordin Canada said her team was able to handle the pressure of a tight game against Cal and move on in this tournament because of their previous experiences.
“It’s about experiences and maturity and watching to get better,” Canada said. “We know the level of competition during this time.”
The Bears and the Bruins have plenty of dramatic battles in their past and this game was no exception. The game was tied 69-69 with a little more than two minutes left, Cal’s Kristine Anigwe fouling out at the 3:00 mark. Kelli Hayes pulled off a steal and a layup with 1:24 to go to give the Bruins a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“Getting to the NCAA Sweet 16 two years in a row, you realize you want more,” said Hayes. “You don’t want to continue falling short. I think this is the year we’ve learned from the past years. We don’t want to fall short this year.”
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.