January 1, 2021 

Pac-12 Notebook: A big week out West

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How's No. 11 vs No. 8 for you? How about No. 1 vs No. 6?

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Tucson, Ariz. — Arizona senior forward Sam Thomas (14) celebrates as the team heads into the locker room during the Wildcats’ game against Idaho on Dec. 23, 2020. Photo by Simon Asher courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

The Pac-12 had a busy week of contract negotiations, the arrival of crucial reinforcements for a Top 15 team and national honors. How do you top that? Two Top 25 match-ups—including No. 1 against No. 6—aren’t the worst ways.

UCLA gets some help

The Bruins have been in a real spot this season. Legal red tape and coronavirus opt-outs had left UCLA with just eight players.

Not that they weren’t great players. The Bruins had enough firepower to start the season in the Top 10 of both polls. Still, playing shorthanded in a league that features three other Top 10 teams isn’t the best recipe for success.

Head coach Cori Close and her team got some relief this week when 2021 recruit Dominique Darius enrolled early and joined the Bruins. The high school senior arrives in Westwood as the No. 26 player and No. 9 guard according to ESPN’s 2021 rankings.

With the free year granted by the NCAA, it’s a win-win for both UCLA and Darius. Darius provides needed backcourt depth for the Bruins. The team is missing junior guards Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson, both of whom opted out this season due to the pandemic, and freshman guard Gemma Potter, who is caught up in U.S. government regulations keeping some international students out of the country.

For Darius, early enrollment offers her time to get acclimated to the college game on a Top 25 team. Since the year won’t count against her four-year eligibility, she can do it without affecting her long-term college plans.

The native of Jacksonville, Fla. played for Blair Academy in New Jersey. As a junior, she scored 15.8 points per game on a team that went 26-5 and won the Prep A championship.

Kelly Graves gets paid

Off the court, Oregon fans got reassurance that their coach will be around for a good while. The school announced that head coach Kelly Graves has signed a contract extension that will keep him in Eugene until at least the 2028-29 season.

“Kelly Graves has built a tremendous culture and family atmosphere within Oregon women’s basketball program that has created a first-class experience for our student-athletes,” said Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens in the school’s press release. “He and his staff have elevated the standard in our program to consistently competing for and winning Pac-12 championships while also competing at the highest level nationally.”

After seeming to be on the way to a Final Four before the pandemic stepped in last season, Graves lost no time this season proving that the rise of Oregon was no fluke built on one great recruiting class. He replaced three top-eight WNBA draft picks with the No. 1 recruiting class and has hardly skipped a beat.

The Ducks are 7-0 overall and 5-0 in the Pac-12. That ties them with Arizona for the conference lead.

Oregon stated that the increase in Graves’ salary will be funded by private donations to the athletic department.

Arizona gets recognized

The other team that stands at 5-0 in the league only played one game last week, but it made quite the statement in that contest. It was enough of a statement to garner the nod as the NCAA’s Team of the Week.

After struggling to get non-conference games scheduled, Wildcats’ head coach Adia Barnes was able to get Idaho to come to Tucson two days before Christmas.

The Vandals are a solid, experienced mid-major who were headed to the Big Sky Conference title game in March when the pandemic put an end to their drive for the NCAA Tournament. They ended the year 22-9, finishing second in their conference.

Idaho headed into this season as the conference co-favorites in the preseason media polls. They entered the game against the Wildcats with a 3-2 record.

Arizona had started slowly against Northern Arizona—another Big Sky team—in their season opener. Their performance against the Vandals showed just how far they’ve come since Nov. 29.

Despite playing their starters no more than 20 minutes each, the Wildcats routed their visitors 96-42. Five players scored in double figures and a sixth had nine points.

The fact that three players outscored Arizona star Aari McDonald and freshman Lauren Ware put up a double-double has to make the Wildcats feel good about their depth heading into the toughest test of the year.

Which takes us to the biggest story of the week…

Fans get a New Year’s gift

The biggest game on the NCAA women’s basketball schedule this weekend will be played Friday evening at 7 p.m. EST in Tucson. It’s a game big enough to make any true fan of the women’s game look for at least a trial subscription to the national carriers of the Pac-12 Network. After all, who could willingly miss a match-up between No. 1 Stanford and No. 6 Arizona and still call themselves a fan of the game?

Arizona has not been able to threaten Stanford much since the 2004-05 season, but the Cardinal’s complete dominance over the Wildcats has eased over the past two years. The last two games between the traditional power from Palo Alto and the rising program from Tucson suggest that this will be a close, hard-fought contest.

On the penultimate weekend of the 2018-19 regular season, the Wildcats took a trip to Maples Pavilion. After getting blown out in McKale Center early in the year, the question was how much the young team had improved in Aari McDonald’s first year leading the show.

The answer? Quite a bit.

The seventh-ranked Cardinal won that day, but the Wildcats showed that they could do more than compete. Arizona built a seven-point lead in the final quarter, but Stanford showed that they had what the opponent lacked: the experience that teaches you how to win.

With her team trailing 53-54, senior forward Alanna Smith hit a 3-pointer with just 24 seconds on the clock. It would be the winning basket as the Cardinal took the 56-54 victory.

Almost exactly a year later, the two teams would have their only meeting of the year in McKale Center on the last weekend of the season. This time, both teams would be ranked. Stanford stood at No. 4 and Arizona at No. 13.

Arizona got out to the strong start, taking a 19-11 lead at the end of one. Stanford fought back, cutting the Wildcats’ lead to two at the half. The Cardinal came out ready in the second half, outscoring the Wildcats 21-14, but Arizona would return the favor in 21-16 the final quarter.

There would be overtime.

McDonald had missed the team’s previous two games with an injury that would cause her to wear a brace for the rest of the season. It didn’t slow her down.

With eight ticks on the clock and her team down by one, she hit the game-winning shot to lift the Wildcats to the program’s first victory over a Top 5 team.

If that kind of drama isn’t enough to make fans search for a way to get the Pac-12 Network, the promise of a second Top 25 game just two days later must be.

On Sunday at 4 p.m. EST, No. 11 UCLA will travel to Eugene to face No. 8 Oregon. The undefeated Ducks are tied with Arizona for the conference lead at 5-0 in the Pac-12. The Bruins stand at 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the league. They have already had to face both the Wildcats and the Cardinal.

It will be the biggest test yet for the Ducks. While they beat then-No. 15 Oregon State, they have yet to face either Stanford or Arizona. They also showed just how treacherous the Pac-12 can be by escaping the upstart Washington State Cougars 69-65 last weekend.

If you don’t have access to the Pac-12 Network through your carrier, it’s time to look for at least a trial subscription to Sling or Fubo, basketball fans. You’re not going to want to miss this weekend!

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