Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Oregon, Stanford to meet in the Pac-12 title game
LAS VEGAS – The days of 100-point games and 30- or 40-point blowouts are over. The Oregon Ducks know it.
And they have to look no further than the proof they experienced on Saturday night at MGM Garden Arena.
A bruising, compelling, down-to-the-wire battle with No. 4 seed UCLA ended with an 88-83 overtime win for the top-seeded Ducks, earning them a spot in the Pac-12 Tournament title game for the second year in a row. They will take on second-seeded Stanford – a 72-60 winner over 11th-seeded Washington - for the title, a team they defeated on the Cardinal’s home floor by 40-points just a month ago.
But there is absolutely no reason to believe that it will be nearly that easy again. Because March is here. Because UCLA started the season with a 3-6 record, and has finished the Pac-12 stretch by looking like a team that could beat anyone in the country. Because the Ducks just saw first-hand what that looks like.
“I’ve got UCLA as a candidate to win several games in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a good team,” said Ducks coach Kelly Graves. “Because we are good team that played well tonight, and we were pushed to the brink.”
After playing what they viewed as a sub-par game on Friday in the quarterfinals against Arizona, the Ducks were looking for some atonement. Junior post Ruthy Hebard was looking for something a bit more, having missed the Feb. 22 loss to UCLA because of a knee injury.
“I want to come out and give my team what I could,” said Hebard, who finished with a game-high 28 points on 13-of-18 shooting from the floor with 12 rebounds and three steals. Hebard scored 14 of her 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. “Yesterday, we knew we were unhappy about how we played, so I think we were all ready to come out and play Duck basketball and I think that’s what you got today.”
Pac-12 Player of the Year Sabrina Ionescu fought through a tough shooting night to finish with 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, to break the conference tournament’s career assist record. Maite Cazorla, who was in bed earlier this week with the flu, played all 45 minutes and finished with 11 points and five assists with no turnovers.
Oregon (28-3) led by as many as 10 points in the first quarter before UCLA charged back into the game and stayed in the Ducks’ hip pocket the rest of the way. The score was tied 15 times in the game, the fourth overtime in tournament history.
Oregon hit 10 3-pointers in the game, UCLA hit nine.
Oregon pulled down 41 rebounds. UCLA grabbed 39.
Oregon turned the ball over 10 times. UCLA. Same.
Oregon had four players score in double figures. UCLA had three.
In a game of inches, the Ducks inched forward just enough to win.
“I thought tonight we really showed our championship mettle, making plays when we really needed to,” Graves said.
UCLA, meanwhile, paid dearly for a couple of late mistakes, including a technical foul on coach Cori Close in the overtime period and a turnover under their own basket with four seconds to go in OT.
“Coach always emphasizes just responding to whatever happens, win or loss, we just have to get better from it,” said point guard Japreece Dean, who finished with 22 points.
For UCLA (20-11), it was a devastating loss. After winning 12 of their last 14 games coming in and playing some of the best basketball of any team in the nation, the Bruins wanted to win this tournament badly. They wanted to hand Oregon a second loss this season, this time with Hebard on the floor.
Not getting what they wanted left them drained and emotional.
“We didn’t come in happy to be here,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “We didn’t come in thinking ‘Oh, we’ve come so far’. We expected to win.
“What I told them in the locker room is when you love deeply, it hurts more. But would you have it any other way? When you invest deeply, it’s really going to sting when you are disappointed, but that’s how you have peace, because you finished empty. I’m proud of the way they finished empty.”
It wasn’t necessarily a thing of beauty, but Stanford advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament title game for the 16th time, and the third straight year, with its start-to-finish win over Washington.
Stanford knows it must be sharper on Sunday when it takes on Oregon, the team that handed Tara VanDerveer the most lopsided loss of her Stanford career back on February 10 at Maples Pavilion.
“Oregon has a great team,” VanDerveer said. “They have terrific players, a great system. They’ve demonstrated that throughout the whole year, but we’re here to battle.
“I’m really excited about how much our team has improved, how hard we're working, and we're going to come out. We were in the same situation last year (facing Oregon in the title game) and we're going to learn from the good things we did and learn from the mistakes we made. But I have a lot of confidence in our team and our players, and we're just going to play our game.”
Stanford junior forward Maya Dodson admitted that her team “did not come out ready” for their first matchup against the Ducks and they don’t plan to make that mistake twice.
“Oregon is a great team, and we came out kind of flat, and they took advantage of that,” Dodson said. “But we learned from that game. It's in the past, and I think we're ready now as long as we play our game.”
DiJonai Carrington said that VanDerveer talks about past games in terms of a “rear view mirror”.
“We can't always harp on that loss, but we have to look every couple seconds, right, and see what we can build from it and what we can learn from that,” Carrington said. “I think that's what we've done from that point on. We've grown as a team, we've grown as a unit. We're improving our shot percentages and our field goal percentages, and we're playing smart and together. And I think tomorrow that will show for us.”
The Cardinal got a balanced offensive effort against Washington, led by 21 points from senior Alanna Smith (her 14th 20-point game of the season), along with 14 each from Carrington and Dodson and 11 points from Kiana Williams.
Stanford hit 11 3-pointers and outscored Washington inside by a 33-22 margin.
For Washington, the tournament’s most unlikely run – and the Huskies’ season – is over.
Amber Melgoza led the way with a season-high 32 points, but no other Washington player scored in double figures.
“We knew Stanford was going to challenge us on both sides of the ball and it was just tough,” said Washington coach Jody Wynn. “They make it difficult for us to take away one thing or the other. I will say that I’m super proud that we didn’t quit. I’m proud of our overall effort for three games that we had in this tournament. We grew so much.”
Stanford had beaten Washington in their previous two games by a combined margin of 56 points. Before the half, the Huskies cut Stanford’s lead to six points, when a well-past-halfcourt 3-pointer by Carrington blunted Washington’s momentum.
Carrington came out and hit a 3-pointer to start the second half and the Huskies were left to play a game of catch-up that wasn’t to be.
“(Playing) three straight games is obviously a very hard thing to do,” Melgoza said. “But I thought we all just played with tremendous heart out there and we were just battling. We battled for 40 minutes as much as we can, and we obviously didn’t have the ending we wanted, but I thought we stuck together and that’s something that’s really important and that will carry on to next 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. She was just named winner of the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball.