Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Feature: Conference Title Race
Last weekend in the Pac-12 women’s basketball race was both a pivotal and informative one.
The top four teams in the conference, according to the national rankings, faced off in defining matchups that tells us much about the conference title race heading into the heart of the schedule.
No. 1 Stanford (9-0, 6-0) - The No. 1-team in the country, and the last unbeaten team in the Pac-12, has only burnished its status over the past two weeks with a double-digit win over UCLA and then a 27-point win against Arizona last Friday. What do we know about the Cardinal after last weekend? The Cardinal's depth, length and versatility have been difficult to deal with for opposing teams. Stanford, winning Pac-12 games by an average margin of 24.2 points a game, is playing both elite offense and defense. Haley Jones is playing like an All-American. Fran Belibi improves every game. Kiana Williams and Lexie Hull are playing stabilizing roles as veterans. Ten players are averaging double-digit minutes. Five players are averaging double-digit scoring. The Cardinal are out-rebounding opponents by 16.2 rebounds a game. All this production while having not played a home game or practiced in their home gym since late November. More schedule changes are to come along with another very big test. Stanford will play a home game on Friday against Oregon, which suffered its first loss of the season on Sunday at home against UCLA, in Santa Cruz at 11:30 a.m. on Pac-12 Network. Sunday’s game against Oregon State has been postponed.
No. 9 UCLA (6-2, 4-2) - The Bruins needed to shake off last week’s loss to Stanford and then did that in impressive fashion, traveling to Eugene and pulling off a dramatic 73-71 win over the Ducks, ending the nation’s longest winning streak and becoming the rare road team to pull off a win at Matthew Knight Arena. UCLA played that game short-handed with eight healthy players, but also well-rested, having not played since December 21. They were able to focus their attention on the Ducks because their Friday game against Oregon State was postponed and it paid off in a critical win that marked the sixth-straight season in which the Bruins notched a win over a top-10 team. Michaela Onyenwere was named Pac-12 Player of the Week for her performance in that game, scoring a career-high 33 points in a game that UCLA surely felt like it had to have, given that it’s previous two losses this season came against top-10 opponents in Arizona and Stanford, and the urgency to keep pace atop the standings.
No. 11 Oregon (8-1, 6-1) - For the first time this season, the Ducks will learn how they respond to a loss. Sunday’s 73-71 loss to UCLA handed Oregon their first loss of the season, ended their nation’s-best 27-game winning streak, and marked their first Pac-12 loss in 24 games. Life gets no easier for Kelly Graves’ young team, who will travel to the Bay Area for Friday’s showdown with No. 1 Stanford in Santa Cruz. Oregon has won three straight games over the Cardinal. But Graves knows that his team will have its hands full on Friday.
“This is the best team they’ve had since I’ve been in the league,” Graves said. “They are not just the No. 1 team as a ranking, they are clearly the best team in the country. I think we have the same type of players they do, but we don’t have the experience. They have a system, they know it, they run it and they have no weaknesses.”
Oregon has a couple of question marks. Veteran guard Taylor Chavez missed the last two games due to personal reasons and post Sedona Prince missed the UCLA game with an injury. Their potential availability will make a huge difference for the Ducks against a deep Cardinal team.
No. 7 Arizona (8-1, 6-1) - The Wildcats bounced back from Friday’s Stanford loss, their first of the season, to pin a decisive defeat on Cal. But the loss to the Cardinal is going to sting as a “measuring stick” game. The Wildcats did not shoot well - scoring a season-low 54 points - did not defend well - giving up a season-high 81 points - and did not rebound well (a 19-rebound deficit) against the best team in the country.
“It was one of our worst games,” said Wildcats coach Adia Barnes. “We have to get better. We just saw that’s why they are No. 1...It should hurt because they made us look bad.”
In a different season, Arizona, whose 8.7-point scoring margin in conference games is the lowest among the top four teams, might have played this game backed by a full house at McKale Center. The Wildcats might have grabbed some energy from the crowd at critical points in the game. Next up is a road game Sunday against upstart Washington State in Pullman.
Arizona State and Washington both announced that it’s weekend games have been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols. The Sun Devils and Huskies join Oregon State, which has not played since December 19.
That brings to the number of teams that have been forced to pause this season to seven, including ASU, Colorado, OSU, Utah, USC, UW and Washington State.
Such a difficult situation for these teams, their coaches and their players.