March 29, 2021 

From Sweet to Elite: Two Pac-12 teams dance on in NCAA Women’s Tournament

Arizona and Stanford advance to Elite 8

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 28: Stanford takes on Missouri State in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 28, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

And then there were two.

Of the three Pac-12 teams to make it to the Sweet 16, Arizona and Stanford will dance on, while the Ducks fly home after a tough loss to Louisville.

With two teams heading to the Elite 8 in the women’s tournament and three Pac-12 teams advancing on the men’s side (Oregon State, UCLA, USC), it’s a good time to be a fan of the Conference of Champions. Maybe Bill Walton is a bracket genius after all.

Wildcats peaking at the right time

Arizona is heading to the Elite 8 for the first time in ever, and if you ask Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, she’d say her team is poised to make even more history.

“I was 20 when I graduated and we left our legacy,” Barnes said of her own NCAA Tournament run as a Wildcat. “So I always tell these young women, ‘Leave your legacy, leave your mark.’ And all these players came when no one believed in Arizona.”

Well, they can definitely start to believe now.

The Wildcats didn’t back down in their Saturday match-up against No. 2 Texas A&M, pulling away with a 74-59 win. 

Aari McDonald, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, dropped 31 points on the night while also holding it down on defense. The Wildcats were hot up and down the bench, too, pouring in a season-high 13 team threes, six of which came from McDonald.

On the defensive end, McDonald led the effort to shut down Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon, who had played a pivotal role in pushing her team through the first two rounds. By the time Nixon was facing Arizona, she’d tallied up 35 points in the second round, but was held to just three Saturday.

“If we wanted to win, I had to shut her down,” McDonald said. “It starts with her. I had to lock her down.”

McDonald was relentless from the floor. She put up 19 points by halftime, helping propel Arizona to a 35-32 lead. Twelve more points from her in the second half helped push that to a 13-point lead.

As if the Wildcats’ offensive prowess wasn’t enough, they also held it down on defense to lock in the win. They forced 19 turnovers on 13 steals, led by Sam Thomas who had five steals.

Even though McDonald was a red-hot bucket machine, the solid defense was the key to Arizona’s win. They outscored Texas A&M 28-2 in points off turnovers and never allowed a fast break point to the Aggies.

Now, the Wildcats will look to that ruthless defense to carry them through the Elite 8.

“We are a very good defensive team,” said Barnes. “We are going to grind you out. We felt A&M hadn’t been pressured like we could pressure.”

Arizona will face No. 4 Indiana on Monday night. The Hoosiers are on a historic tournament run of their own. The winner of this one will be a first-time Final Four participant in program history, regardless of the outcome.

The Cardinal not letting up

Stanford was all gas, no brakes against the Lady Bears Sunday and ultimately ran away with a 89-62 victory to advance to the Elite 8. 

There were, of course, standouts like Hannah Jump (17 points) and Kiana Williams (16 points), but the Cardinal really flexed its depth in this game. Ten players played ten minutes or more, none scoring more than Jump’s 17, but all helping contribute to what was nearly a 90-point combined effort from Stanford. 

Stanford led by 23 at the half and by as much as 38 in the final frame thanks to a barrage of three’s (15 total). Williams is Stanford’s career leader in 3-pointers and she made four Sunday.

“We try to ride the hot hand,” Williams said. “It’s hard to guard us because you can’t just focus on one person.”

This team is full of threats up and down the bench. Four players hit double-digit scoring (Jump, Williams, Anna Wilson, Haley Jones), while there was no shortage of rebounds (45 total, Ashten Prechtel led with 10). Cameron Brink was a catalyst for Stanford’s defense with five swats, three rebounds, and a few three-pointers of her own.

As a team, Stanford shot 47 percent from the field and 53 percent from beyond the arc. They balanced things out with 24 assists on 33 made field goals. 

All of this… and the Cardinal is still hungry for more.

“I still don’t think we’re playing our best basketball yet,” Wilson said. “We’re playing really well. We’re clicking and in a lot of different ways than usual. But I think that each player has a lot more to give to the team … I think that with the trajectory we’re going in, it will be good timing. We don’t want to peak too early.”

Missouri State came in with hopes of an upset, and rightfully so. The Lady Bears boasted a veteran lineup eager to improve upon its nine-point loss to Stanford two years ago. They’re no strangers to the big dance and have two Final Four appearances of their own, but after missing nine of their first 10 shots, they just couldn’t get over the hump.

Stanford will face No. 2 Louisville on Tuesday night.

The Ducks are flying home

Oregon’s game against Louisville felt like the polar opposite of Stanford’s match-up earlier in the day.

A slow start for the Ducks devolved into their worst three-point shooting performance of the season. But despite that, and losing two starters to injury, they still managed to pull together a late fight in the fourth quarter, rallying to within six points.

But it wasn’t enough, and Oregon fell to No. 2 Louisville, 60-42.

Things started looking grim for the Ducks almost right away, when they lost starting guard Maddie Scherr to an ankle injury in the first quarter. This was later followed by starting post Nyara Sabally falling to an ankle injury in the third quarter, just as Oregon was gaining some momentum.

There’s just no way around it. Oregon’s offense struggled mightily this game — the Ducks never seemed to find their rhythm and finished just 2-of-18 from deep and shot 32.1 percent overall.

And it doesn’t help that Louisville guard Dana Evans’ efficiency skyrocketed once Scherr was sidelined. Evans ended up scoring 11 of the Cardinals’ 13 points in the second quarter (she’d end the game with 29). And even though the Ducks trailed by just two points going into that quarter, they didn’t put another point on the board until close to the break and were still down at the half, 29-14.

For a moment in the third, it looked like the Ducks could make a comeback, but just as they started to take flight Sabally went down with her injury.

There was one last push in the fourth when Sedona Prince hit a jumper to open the period, then tacked on two free throws to get the Ducks within six (43-37). Oregon even forced a turnover, but couldn’t capitalize on the other end. Louisville then put the final nail in the coffin with a 13-0 run.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. Sabaly and senior Erin Boley each finished with 14 points, while Prince put up 10. Head coach Kelly Graves even praised his team after the game, saying he was proud of his young players for coming as far as they did.

“I don’t think a month ago any people thought we’d be here,” Graves said. “We were the youngest team in the field, and I think we have a championship makeup with the players we have. We just weren’t good enough in this tournament to continue on. But the chance we had to play three games in this tournament, and win a couple, will do us well in the future.”

It was Boley’s last game in a Ducks uniform, and she echoed her coach’s hopeful outlook for the future of Oregon basketball.

“That’s all we could’ve really hoped for was to leave behind something, to show some kind of leadership or lead by an example that kind of paves the path for them to be successful in the future,” Boley said after the game. “They’re all really talented and it’s going to be a great group and like [Coach] said, their future is really bright. So I hope that we were able to help them somewhat on their journey.”

Elite 8 Pac-12 Match-Ups

All listings are Pacific Standard Time.

Mercado Region

  • No. 3 Arizona vs No. 4 Indiana: Monday, March 29 at 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Alamo Region

  • No. 1 Stanford vs No. 2 Louisville: Tuesday, March 30 at 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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