Michelle Smith Women’s Basketball Feature: Starting Five
Running headlong toward a holiday that, like everything else in 2020, won’t look like most other seasons. Instead of teams breaking for a few days and getting some time to rest with friends and family, many of the young women of the Pac-12 will continue to keep tight within their own teams as they continue to navigate the schedule as it moves into 2021.
The season is a month old and already full of conclusions that can be drawn, assumptions that can be made.
Let’s take a look at the five things we’ve learned about the Pac-12 women’s basketball season in its first month.
Oregon’s rebuild looks more like a reload - The eighth-ranked Ducks are 7-0 overall, 5-0 in conference play, own the nation’s longest winning streak at 26 games, and look like they picked up where they left off more than most might have expected following the loss of Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally. The Ducks have been winning handily before getting pushed to the very end by an upstart Washington State team (more on the Cougars in a moment) on Monday. Nyara Sabally, Satou’s younger sister, is finding her groove, coming off a 19-point, 14-rebound game against Washington State which was her second career double-double. Oregon, with four players averaging double figures, has scoring options, averaging 86.7 points a game, right behind Stanford, also ranking second in the conference behind the Cardinal in 3-pointers made, assists and rebounding and lead the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage at 49.4 percent shooting from the floor.
Washington State is looking like a top-half team - The Cougars are 3-1 in Pac-12 play and with an upset win over Oregon State - its first win over a ranked opponent in four seasons - and a fight to the finish with Oregon (a game they led for 31 minutes) on Monday, Washington State is making an impression. Freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker is the Pac-12’s second-leading scorer at 18.8 points a game. Leger-Walker put up her third 20-point performance over her last four games with 20 points against the Ducks, including a career-best four 3-point field goals. Cougars coach Kamie Ethridge said she was proud of her team’s performance against the Ducks.
“I'm proud of how hard we competed and how well we played. But on the other hand, I'm disappointed that we couldn't pull it off,” Ethridge said. “I love the fact we had a chance to win the game, and overall, I think we're showing that we're not a fluke team. I think we're solid in a lot of areas of the game, and the fact we went toe-to-toe with Oregon kind of proves that. It really makes us excited for the rest of the season."
Arizona is getting gritty - The Wildcats are 6-0 and are coming off a 17-point win over Utah, but the Wildcats have had to survive some close games to keep their undefeated record. Three of their five conference wins have come by a total of seven points. They are not getting off to quick starts in games, but coming through at the end. With a January 1 home game looming against top-ranked Stanford, the kind of game that could make a national statement, the Wildcats can ill-afford a slow start, but likely have the confidence to know they can pull out a close game because they’ve already had to do it a few times.
Stanford’s gauntlet has only just begun - The Cardinal have not played at home since the season opener against Cal Poly on November 25. They have been in Vegas, Berkeley and Los Angeles as they have run up a 7-0 record, solidified their hold on the No. 1 ranking nationally and celebrated Tara VanDerveer’s ascension as the winningest coach in the history of the women’s game. And they will play their next two games in Arizona on New Year’s weekend after Monday’s big Top 10 win over UCLA. Next up is the No. 6 Wildcats, the always-tough Arizona State Sun Devils, followed by No. 8 Oregon and then Oregon State. It will be the toughest stretch of the season, and it still remains to be seen where Stanford will have to play those games against the Oregon schools because of county public health orders in Santa Clara that prohibits games to be played in the county.
Oregon State on pause, and looking for a regroup - A three-game losing streak for the Beavers ended their four-year run in the national rankings, Oregon State on the outside of the Top 25 this week for the first time since 2016. But that isn’t the most pressing issue of the moment for Scott Rueck’s team. OSU has paused team activities after the program announced a positive COVID-19 case on Sunday and Monday’s game against Washington was postponed. The Beavers don’t have another scheduled game until January 1, where they are slated to host a New Year’s weekend set against UCLA and USC in Corvallis before facing off against the Bay Area schools and top-ranked Stanford on the road.