Michelle Smith: Pac-12 women's basketball programs ready to resume play after layoffs
Cori Close is trying to find the bright side.
Her team hasn’t played since a nationally-televised loss to Connecticut on December 11, the next six games evaporating into either cancellation or postponement thanks to a COVID surge that has felled most of her team, her coaching staff and herself.
The postponement of Friday’s game at Utah because of COVID protocols in the Utes' program means that the Bruins will play their first game in nearly a month on Sunday at Colorado, if all goes according to plan.
“I think the whole thing I learned from last year was, let’s just be thankful for when we can play,” Close said. “Let’s do whatever we can to make this season possible for the student-athletes. We need to just be grateful for the time we get to train and play.”
UCLA (5-3) was struggling with injuries before the COVID pause. Emily Bessoir is out for the season with an ACL injury. Graduate transfer Gina Conti, an expected starter, has yet to play with a foot injury and Angela Dugalić is out with a knee injury. All three likely would have started this season.
“We had only seven and a half players before COVID,” Close said. “We are one of the only programs that didn’t have one (COVID) pause last season. Not even for contract tracing. This year we can’t catch a break. I’ve gone from having one of my most talented teams to one of the most disrupted.”
UCLA will be looking to make up at least three postponed Pac-12 matchups, even if the rest of the schedule stays intact, and will be hoping that the NCAA drops the 25-game minimum to qualify for the NCAA Tournament when it meets later this month.
“We are looking at maybe playing three games a week for at least a few weeks,” Close said. “There’s just a lot we don’t know.”
Meanwhile in Tucson
Head coach Adia Barnes says No. 4 Arizona is “ready to go" after a long layoff.
The Wildcats have been idle since December 17 after their Pac-12-opening games at UCLA and USC were called off last weekend. This weekend’s home matchup against Washington on Sunday is also no-go and has been replaced with a rescheduled matchup at USC. Arizona has been practicing since its return from Christmas break, waiting for a chance to tip-off again.
On Friday, against Washington State, Arizona will celebrate by inducting All-American Aari McDonald into the school’s Ring of Honor and look to get back on track after a three-game pause.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Barnes said. “I think this has been a good break, good for us mentally and physically. We are just getting back into shape. Most leagues are going to go through this, so I don’t think it’s a huge disadvantage.”
Barnes said the team has tightened its protocols. Masking while practicing, “tightening the bubble.”
Arizona (10-0) returns to the floor as one of only three unbeaten teams in the the nation and the nation’s No. 4 ranking, looking to do a barometer check on its progress in the coming weeks of the Pac-12 schedule.
Ducks at full strength
For the first time all season, the Oregon Ducks were at full strength for a nonconference matchup against Carroll College, a fill-in for a postponed matchup against Colorado. All-conference performers Te-Hina Paopao, Endyia Rogers and Nyara Sabally were all in the lineup together for the first time this season.
“We weren’t great,” said Ducks coach Kelly Graves of his team’s 88-57 win. “But we had to get our feet wet and I didn’t want to be at Stanford to be our first game together. That’s hard enough when you are full strength.”
Paopao and Rogers each scored 12 points and Sabally led Oregon (7-4) with 15 points in 12 minutes on the floor.
The Ducks will face No. 2 Stanford at Maples Pavilion on Friday evening. Stanford announced Tuesday that the gym will be closed to all spectators except for player’s families. The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
“Realistically, we are at mid-November right now in terms of where we are,” Graves said. “We have a little catch up to do, and it’s going to take a while, but when we gel, I think it’s going to be pretty impressive.”
Stanford (9-3, 1-0) defeated Washington State (9-4, 1-1) last weekend in Pullman without five players, including posts Cameron Brink and Ashten Prechtel. The Cardinal rode a 24-point, 16-rebound performance by Haley Jones to the win.