Michelle Smith WBB Notebook: A lot at stake for this week's Civil War
The ticket prices are skyrocketing and national television crews are again prepared to descend on Oregon for two of the most anticipated matchups of the 2019-2020 NCAA women’s basketball season, the home-and-home Civil War games between No. 4 Oregon and No. 7 Oregon State. Both games are sold out.
With so much at stake, let’s ask the big questions about this rivalry match.
What’s the state of this series? Oregon State has dominated the series of late, winning 15 of the last 17 games. Oregon won at home last year on February 15, 77-68, before the Beavers went back to Corvallis and pulled out a 67-62 win.
What’s on the line? For starters, nothing less than positioning for the stretch run of the Pac-12 title race with the second half of the season almost here. Oregon is tied for first with UCLA and Stanford at 5-1. Oregon State, following its home loss to the Cardinal on Sunday are one game back at 4-2. But there’s more. Both Oregon and Oregon State are vying for NCAA seeding position, and the possibility of being the No. 1 seed in the Portland region come mid-March. According to the NCAA RPI rankings, Oregon currently ranks seventh and the Beavers rank 10th. These two games matter greatly for the committee when it comes time to placing them both in the brackets, both in terms of seed line and geography.
Who has the momentum? Oregon has won three in a row since its surprising loss at Arizona State earlier this month, most notably a 32-point win over Stanford last week in Eugene that can only be considered a “statement game” if the statement you want to make is that you believe you are the best team in the country. The Beavers, meanwhile, have lost two of three games. Like the Ducks, OSU fell at Arizona State and then lost on Sunday in a tight game against Stanford. Oregon State hasn’t lost two games in a row since they were swept on the road against UCLA and USC in January 2018.
Who is the X-factor for both teams? For Oregon, it will be Jaz Shelley. The Ducks’ freshman shooter could be a big difference maker. Despite averaging a little more than 18 minutes a game, Shelley, the Australian, ranks second on the team with 30 made 3-pointers, shooting 43.5 percent from beyond the arc. For the Beavers, junior guard Aleah Goodman has struggled of late beyond the 3-point arc - she is 3 of 21 in Pac-12 play thus far - but could heat up and can impact the game on both ends and come up big in a big moment.
What decides it? The long ball. The team that can both shoot 3s and defend the perimeter wins the game in a matchup between two teams that can be among the best 3-point shooting teams in the country.
UCLA coach Cori Close scrambled to depart the Galen Center at USC and headed to the airport for a red-eye flight east on a recruiting trip just a few short hours following the Bruins’ double-overtime loss to USC on Friday night.
By the time she landed her phone was, as the kids’ say, blowing up.
“I had texts when I landed from my team saying ‘Ok, we get it now’,” Close said. “I told them, “I don’t want to hear about it, I want to see it.’”
UCLA went from being the country’s lone unbeaten team on Friday night, to a team - playing without star Michael Onyenwere - that finally knew how it felt to lose.
“We learned some hard lessons,” Close said. “We needed to address some things that winning was masking. As much as you try to get those messages across, it’s a little harder when you keep winning.”
The Bruins will have their first chance for a bounce-back at Pauley Pavilion on Friday and Sunday against Washington State and then Washington.
It is not clear whether Onyenwere will be able to play and UCLA still has its toughest stretch of the season to come beginning January 31, when the Bruins face five ranked teams in six games, three of those games on the road.
Onyenwere, the junior forward who is the team’s leading scorer (3rd in the Pac-12) and rebounder (7th in the Pac-12) has an ankle injury and Close wasn’t able to be specific about when she will return to the lineup.
“We are obviously hoping to get her back sooner rather than later. In the short term, we may struggle, but in the long term, this is going to make us better,” Close said.
Close said she wants to see players “step up and play” in Onyenwere’s absence.
“It’s not like we don’t have other weapons,” Close said. “People just need to find their place.”
Senior point guard Japreece Dean put up 24 points and 10 rebounds against the Trojans. Freshman Charisma Osborne notched a career-high 20 points, 18 of those coming in the second half and overtime periods.
Close said that both players will play key roles in a span of time without Onyenwere, no matter how long that lasts.
“If Japreece wants to play at the next level, she needs to find another rhythm without Michaela, and I think she already has,” Close said. “And Charisma is really coming along. I think of all the freshmen in the league, she’s made one of the biggest impacts on both sides of the ball. She’s a really capable player.”
A little more than a year ago, UCLA struggled to a 3-5 start as they remodeled their team and Close was talking with her players about resilience and perseverance. At 16-1 and with the nation’s No. 10 ranking pinned to them now, the conversations really aren’t that different.
“Every season is different, that’s for sure,” Close said. “Every team has to learn how to deal mentally and emotionally with different circumstances. In this case, it was being undefeated.”
Cougars looking to break through
Washington State is still waiting for the break through, the win over a ranked team that feels long overdue after so many opportunities. The Cougars have played seven ranked teams this season, including the No. 2 (Baylor), No. 3 (Stanford), No. 5 (South Carolina) teams in the country at the time of the meeting, and they will face No. 10 this week when they head south to UCLA.
And coach Cammie Ethridge feels like her team missed a prime opportunity last weekend at home against No. 21 Arizona and No. 18 Arizona State, two games in which they lost by single digits and felt like they could have - should have - come away with a win or two.
“I don’t think we played with enough intensity, enough physicality and, in this league, you get exposed when you won’t do that,” Ethridge said. “We had a chance to win the Arizona State game. The last phase for us is really to execute better. To consistently play at that level of intensity and competitiveness.”
The Cougars (9-9, 2-4) rank fourth in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (45.1) and third in 3-point percentage (36.0).
Ethridge said she is coaching a team with increasing confidence, one that knows it can compete. But now the Cougars need to finish.
“Arizona and Arizona State are teams playing a high level. They are built to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, but if we bring our best, we have a chance to beat them,” Ethridge said.
“That’s what’s disappointing. We had them at home and we didn’t play at quite the level we needed to.”
Washington State’s schedule ranks 19th in the nation. Ethridge said it has made her team tougher.
“It certainly hasn’t done anything negative for us,” Ethridge said. “I’m not sure this team was ready for all of this. But we’ve handled it pretty well and our next step is to beat a team that is a little better than us. To overachieve a little. And there are still chances in this league for us to do that.”
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including 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. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.