Michelle Smith Feature: Previewing Oregon v Stanford Pac-12 WBB Tournament championship game
SEATTLE – The Pac-12 Tournament title game will feature two teams at the opposite ends of a spectrum – at least when it comes to this particular quest.
Oregon bounds into the championship game as the top seed after winning its first regular-season championship, but for the youthful, talent-rich Ducks, this will be an entirely new experience. Oregon has never played in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game, the Ducks having reached the semifinals only twice before this season.
And they are taking on second-seeded Stanford. The team that has won this tournament 12 times, who in 17 years of tournament play, has only ever lost four games.
The “opposite-game” doesn’t end there.
On Saturday night, in the semifinal round, both teams earned their spot in very different fashions. Oregon battled to the finish against UCLA for the third time this season, winning 65-62 by running off 10 unanswered points to erase a seven-point deficit against the Bruins with a little more than five minutes to play. It was another thriller in a three-game series against UCLA this season that showcased some of the Pac-12’s biggest stars and its best basketball.
Stanford, meanwhile, is back in a familiar place by dominating sixth-seeded Arizona State, 58-46, leading from start to finish. The Cardinal got a game-high 24 points from freshman guard Kiana Williams, who is emerging as a standout as the NCAA Tournament draws near.
Because of the unbalanced Pac-12 schedule, Oregon and Stanford met just once during the regular season, the Cardinal coming away with a 78-65 win in Eugene on a star-making day from senior guard Brittany McPhee, who scored 19 straight points in the fourth quarter (and 33 total) to propel Stanford to their signature victory of the regular season.
Oregon guard and Pac-12 Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu can’t wait for another opportunity to play the Cardinal with considerably more on the line.
“We would definitely like another shot at them,” Ionescu said. “I don’t think we played our best game (that day). So that was kind of a hard pill to swallow to lose to them. Stanford will be a good game for us. I think we are going to grow and take it to them.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer called Oregon “the ultimate challenge.”
“They have a great outside game and a great inside game,” VanDerveer said. “They have terrific perimeter players and their size is so big. I think they are a legitimate top-10 team and we’ll have to play very well to beat them again.”
The Ducks, who bring an eight-game winning streak into the title game, expended a lot of energy Saturday night against the Bruins, who badly wanted to win a tournament title for seniors Jordin Canada and Monique Billings.
After the loss – their third single-digit loss to Oregon in the past two months – the Bruins showed their emotions.
UCLA coach Cori Close’s voice cracked as she talked about how proud she was of her team, who ran out to a 13-point lead in the first half before Oregon closed the game with a run of their own before the end of the first half.
“Right now, we are really hurting,” Close said. “But in the midst of hurting, I am really proud. They fought their butts off. They were relentless. They were locked in. They fought like crazy and in the end, when life kicks you, you’ve got to let it kick you forward.”
It was a boisterous crowd that witnessed the drama between the Ducks and the Bruins. Close called it an “NCAA Elite Eight level game.”
“All I can ask my team is that they give everything from their heart and soul and I couldn’t ask for anything more on that front,” Close said.
Oregon, meanwhile, was celebrating a hard-fought win that included double-digit scoring performances from four players, including a team-high 17 points from Ionescu and 15 points and 13 rebounds from fellow sophomore Ruthy Hebard. Maite Carzola added 14 points and Lexi Bando pitched in 11, including three huge 3-pointers, one with three minutes to go to pull the Ducks within 62-61.
“I wasn’t really thinking, it just came down to playing basketball,” Ionescu said of the game’s final moments. “We knew we had to get stops and not let Jordin get open lanes because we know she was going to try to take over that game. But we stuck together the whole game and played really well down the stretch.”
Ducks coach Kelly Graves said UCLA “brings out the best” in his team. Canada and Billings combined for 37 points in their final Pac-12 performances.
“That’s a Final Four caliber team with Final Four caliber players,” Graves said. “Every time we play them, it’s just one of those great games.”
Stanford overwhelmed an Arizona State team that was playing its third game in three days after upsetting fourth-seeded Oregon State on Saturday night with a gritty performance. ASU shot 31 percent from the floor, the second-lowest percentage of the season.
“I know in their hearts, their passion, they wanted it. But fatigue is real,” said ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne. “But honestly, I don’t know if it was that, or if we squeezed too hard. We really wanted it. I think our team felt really good about this opportunity today. I don’t know if it was fatigue or tension or maybe a little of both, because we weren’t ourselves. Everybody saw that.”
Williams’ performance for Stanford, which included six 3-pointers on seven attempts in 24 minutes, led the Cardinal to a big lead early and allowed them to rest some of their starters in advance of Sunday’s championship game.
“We're not going to rest anybody tomorrow,” VanDerveer said. “So everybody has got to be ready to go.”
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.