March 28, 2024 

With five teams in the Sweet 16, Pac-12 has its proof point in last hurrah

Five of the eight games in the Sweet 16 will have a Pac-12 in it

And then there were five.

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Seven Pac-12 teams, confident that their grueling conference schedule had prepared them for this moment, entered the brackets a week and a half ago.

All seven picked up at least one win during the NCAA Tournament. And now, entering the regional semifinals, five of them remain as an empirical proof point in the conference’s last hurrah.


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“I’m not surprised at all,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “All of these coaches and programs have made me a ton better because if you can prep for this league, you can prep for anything else that’s coming your way.”

For the third time since 2017, the Pac-12 accounts for 31.3 percent of the teams that survived the first weekend of the women’s tournament. The next closest representation is the SEC and ACC, with three each.

Stanford and Oregon State will take their spots in the regional semifinals on Friday. UCLA, Colorado and USC will jump in on Saturday.

“I just think we have prepared each other to be ready for big moments,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “The intensity that you have to come and be ready to play with and the solutions you have to find with all the different styles of play, it’s an honor.”


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Both Gottlieb and Close talked after their second-round games about being part of a group text earlier in the week with Tara VanDerveer and the rest of the Pac-12 coaches.

“She sent a text to all the other coaches and talked about what an honor it’s been to coach in this conference and then everybody was piping in back-and-forth,” Close said. “I just thought, you know, it used to be Stanford and the 11 dwarfs, and now look at it, and who is the first person to champion that balance? Tara. And I just think it really has been a very special experience.

“We’ve built this together taking off our institutional hats and choosing to grow the game and grow the conference was more important and that was a real big honor to be a part of.”

VanDerveer said she texts the coaches whose teams are in the tournament every year. This year, she included everyone.

“I just said that as we end our Pac-12 family, I just want to wish everyone best of luck, and that as we are going our separate ways, that we’ve had a great and special thing,” VanDerveer said. “We are a really close group. It is incredibly sad to see the end of such a great conference that has the most teams in the Sweet 16…It’s not just the fact that our teams are successful, but we have worked together to make the Pac-12 successful. The coaches have worked together, administrators. We represent great universities. It was a best wishes, but also to remember how special it’s been.”

Special, indeed. The Pac-12 sent seven teams to the Big Dance last season, yet none made it out of the Sweet 16. That would be no way for this conference to go out in 2024, particularly after one of the conference’s strongest seasons in memory and an unbelievable and captivating Pac-12 Tournament.


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The Pac-12 has sent at least one team to the Final Four in 12 of the last 15 Tournaments since 2008, highlighted by the memorable all-Pac-12 title game in 2021, when Stanford beat Arizona in a thriller. Doing it again, for one last time, would be the way to go out.

Albany

Oregon State vs. Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish, who have a 5-0 historic record against OSU, have won 10 straight heading into this game. But they will be facing a balanced Beavers team that can pressure you from the inside out with sophomore post and third-team All-American Raegan Beers, who shoots 66.3 percent from the field and a bevy of 3-point shooters connecting on nearly eight 3s per game. Keeping Notre Dame’s versatile freshman star Hannah Hildago contained will be the biggest challenge. But the Irish also have experienced players in Maddy Westbeld and Sonia Citron. Oregon State is a tough out in the postseason and no one should expect anything different on Friday.

UCLA vs. LSU: Do the Bruins have the experience and balance to knock out the defending national champions? The short answer is yes. This is the last go around for fifth-year senior Charisma Osborne and she is flanked everywhere by talent, with sophomores Kiki Rice and Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez. And sophomore Lauren Betts has literally changed the game for UCLA with her dominant play inside. UCLA showed mettle by coming back from a 10-point third-quarter deficit against Creighton in the second round and holding the Bluejays to 21 points in the second half. LSU’s shaky start in the second round against Middle Tennessee was followed by a huge second half and a blowout win, but it leaves one to wonder whether the Tigers, even with Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow, are ready for a 40-minute battle against a complete team like UCLA.


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Colorado vs. Iowa: This will be the marquee game of the Sweet 16 round considering the presence of superstar Caitlin Clark and the fact that this is a rematch from last year’s regional semifinal where the Buffaloes took the Hawkeyes to the final minutes before eventually falling to the tournament runner-up. Colorado knows well what Iowa is good at and they have a stout defense that is led by point guard Jaylyn Sherrod on the perimeter and Aaronette Vonleh and Quay Miller inside. Last year, Frida Formann torched Iowa from beyond the arc. WIll the Buffaloes be prepared to disappoint America with an upset? Absolutely.

Portland

Stanford vs. North Carolina State: This is the homecoming opportunity that Stanford senior Cameron Brink has been looking forward to, and if Beaverton native pairs up with emerging star Kiki Iriafen on the offensive end and on the boards and stays out of foul trouble, it will probably be a difficult task for the Wolfpack, who don’t have comparable size. But Stanford’s perimeter defense has been up and down all season and N.C. State has speed in the backcourt, which could cause the Cardinal some problems. Guard Saniya Rivers had a breakout game against Tennessee in the second round with 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks. These two teams have not faced off since 1994, and with Stanford about to join the ACC, they might as well get acquainted.

USC vs. Baylor: The Trojans, in the regional semifinal for the first time since 1994, are facing off against the fifth-seeded Bears, who upset Virginia Tech to earn their spot. USC has won seven in a row coming into the game behind freshman JuJu Watkins, the nation’s second-leading scorer behind Clark. But fifth-year senior McKenzie Forbes has been USC’s leading scorer over the past three games, averaging 23 points a game. And junior Rayah Marshall is one of the most productive posts in the Tournament. Baylor has six players averaging at least eight points a game and will lean into their balance, but they were led by junior point guard Jada Parker with a career-high 28 points against Virginia Tech. And Parker will draw some defensive attention from the Trojans. USC’s size should be the difference in this game.


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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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