January 17, 2023 

Dissecting the Pac-12’s wild Sunday

The Pac-12 has nine teams currently in the Top 64 positions in the NCAA Net Rankings — eight of those teams among the Top 41

What did we just watch? Only one of the most interesting days in the Pac-12, well, in a really long time. Upsets, sweeps and frankly, some big-time disappointments. And it furthers the intrigue of the conference’s NCAA positioning.

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The Pac-12 has nine teams currently in the Top 64 positions in the NCAA Net Rankings, eight of those teams among the Top 41. A collectively strong nonconference is going to keep Pac-12 teams in the mix likely until the calendar turns to March. But the sorting is starting to take shape.

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Teams like Stanford, Utah and UCLA (and possibly Oregon, Arizona and now Colorado) are jockeying for host seeds. Washington State and USC want to cement their place in the conversation. While Oregon State, who missed the tournament last year, is hanging on to its candidacy, knowing the big wins need to come soon.

Let’s start at the top

USC downs No. 2, Stanford

Lindsay Gottlieb has been coaching against Tara VanDerveer for a long time. Her USC team has a lot of new faces, but they also have talent, a commitment to Beth Burns’ defense and grit. It earned them perhaps the program’s biggest win in nearly a decade. 

Every time Stanford pushed toward their lead, the Trojans, who led wire to wire and held the Cardinal to their lowest scoring total in seven years, even while playing without arguably their best player in Kadi Sissoko, USC was ready to push back. USC never let Stanford get momentum or the rhythm their offense needs to run over most opponents.

The Trojans haven’t beaten the No. 2 team in the country in 15 years. They haven’t beaten Stanford since 2014. Stanford ended its 39-game win streak over conference opponents and a 12-game win streak overall.

USC held Stanford to not only a season-low in points but 31% shooting and 19% from the arc. Stanford had scored at least 60 points in every game this season.

The Cardinal now faces a bit of a mid-season crisis point. The offense has stagnated over the past three games, with Stanford averaging 59.3 points and is 15 of 63 (23.8 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc over that stretch. Senior guard Haley Jones is 12-for-45 from the floor over those games and sharpshooter Hannah Jump is 4 for 14 from beyond the arc, signaling a perimeter issue that, if not rectified against familiar opponents, could cost the Cardinal a No. 1 seed, though it’s awfully early to say the sky is falling.

But after a bumpy weekend in Southern California, which included a tough win over UCLA and now this loss, the rest of the league has a blueprint for stifling their offense.

“It wasn’t just turnovers; it was bad shots,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said after the game. “I don’t know that we can do anything any worse. This has to be rock bottom in terms of execution offensively.” 

And No. 10 Utah and Colorado are coming to Maples this weekend to add to the degree of difficulty.

Arizona goes home with two losses

The Wildcats got off to a slow start on Friday night in losing to Colorado in Boulder. The Buffaloes’ are quickly becoming a team that no one wants to play as the conference season moves into its heart of the schedule. And Sunday’s opportunity for a high-value bounceback win against No. 10 Utah turned into a foul-filled affair that saw three Arizona players — including fifth-year senior leaders Shaina Pellington and Cate Reese, who put up 25 points in a strong performance — foul out.

Arizona’s 9 for 16 performance from the line glares as well, considering that the game was decided by a pair of Alissa Pili free-throws with 0.3 seconds on the clock. Adia Barnes might not have liked that last call, but there was plenty more to be frustrated about on a trip that leaves Arizona at 4-3, coming on the heels of what was a big sweep on the road against Oregon just last week.

The Wildcats want a host seed; they want a big crowd at McKale come March. With an underwhelming weekend against two of the league’s top-half teams, Arizona needs to collect some big wins with a defining eight-game stretch starting on Jan. 29 that will include Washington State, UCLA, USC, Stanford, Cal, Utah, Colorado and Oregon.

Washington State beats Oregon in OT

The Cougars got their first win over a ranked team this year, defeating the Ducks in overtime, a huge win for Washington State to boost their standing in the NET rankings by three spots (44 to 41). It was a game that WSU couldn’t close out in regulation, giving up a six-point lead with 10 seconds to go, thanks to a foul with no time left on the clock that led to a pair of clutch free throws by freshman Grace VanSlooten, a strong candidate for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Oregon led by double-digits in the third quarter in this roller-coaster of a game, with Endyia Rogers finishing with 33 points.

Bella Murekatete (20 points) and Charlisse Leger-Walker (17) scored 26 of their 37 points in the second half for the Cougars, who have won three straight games after an 0-3 start that threatened to drop them into the bottom half of the Pac-12 standings.

The loss was not the 60th birthday gift that head coach Kelly Graves had in mind. Oregon is still in position for a host seed and without having to play a second game against Stanford this season, the scheduling gods have looked favorably upon them.

“It’s disappointing, but we just didn’t have enough players have good games tonight, but credit Wazzu and they played hard,” Graves said postgame. “They have a plan. They play to that plan. Those kids better than any other team in the conference know and execute their roles.”

Tough weekend for the Beavers

If Scott Rueck’s team wants to make a case for an NCAA bid after missing the brackets last season, they should do it soon.

With an opening weekend over UCLA back on Jan. 1 and the stellar play of freshman Raegan Beers as a centerpiece, things looked like they were on the right track for the rebuilding Oregon State Beavers. But since then, OSU only has one more win over winless OSU and a lot of disappointment to swallow after being swept at home by the Washington schools, including Sunday’s 79-67 loss to an improving Huskies squad, who won their first game against the Beavers in Gil Coliseum for the first time in a decade.

OSU usually hangs its hat on defense, but the Beavers’ scoring defense and 3-point percentage defense are currently ranked 10th in the Pac-12, forcing a league-low 11.3 turnovers a game. 

The addition of freshman post Timea Gardiner, the No. 6 prospect in this class who has been sidelined with an undisclosed medical condition and made her college debut this weekend, will hopefully help bolster OSU’s depth.

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Cal pushes UCLA, Washington wins

The bottom-up improvement in the Pac-12 is as much a factor in this conference season as what’s happening at the top. Both Washington and Cal are showing themselves capable of knocking off or at least playing with some of the top teams — and the teams in the middle had best be careful not to underestimate either of these teams.

Following an inspired effort that fell just short against Stanford, the Bears stumbled badly at USC but recovered to push UCLA — leading by double-digits in the first quarter and by two points at the half, until the final minutes despite foul trouble to leading scorer Jayda Curry.

Washington snapped a four-game losing streak when it earned a big win at Oregon State and also had some nice moments in Eugene against Oregon, leading the Ducks.

With Arizona State struggling with injuries and still the only team in the Pac-12 without a win, it’s clear that even the teams at the bottom of the standings are capable of winning and doing damage to someone’s NCAA dreams.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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