March 8, 2024 

How Thursday became possibly the best Pac-12 Tournament day ever

The Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals featured six ranked teams, two teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble and plenty of drama

LAS VEGAS — Thursday might have been the single best day in the 23-year history of the Pac-12 Tournament, the day that this final Pac-12 season was built for. Four quarterfinal matchups, with six of the eight teams in the national rankings. Two teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

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It’s hard to ask for much more.

Then Thursday’s opening game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena went into double overtime for the first time in history, because of course it did.

Colorado and Oregon State’s knock-down, drag-out battle over 50 minutes — which ended with an 85-79 Beavers victory — didn’t just set the tone for the day. It was a baton that was handed off through nearly 11 compelling hours of basketball.

“It’s insane,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said on Thursday. “We were the only conference with Top 25 teams playing yesterday on the first day [of the tournament]. In terms of the level of basketball across the board, like I said, there are eight [NCAA] Tournament teams playing today.”

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Oregon State (24-6) reached the semis for the first time since 2001 and earned a date against top-seeded Stanford on Friday at 5 p.m. PT. The Cardinal won both regular-season matchups, but this will be the first time that both teams’ star forwards, Cameron Brink and Raegan Beers, will be on the floor. Stanford’s Brink missed the first matchup at Maples, and Oregon State’s Beers wasn’t on the floor in the regular-season finale in Corvallis.

On Thursday, the fifth-seeded Buffaloes (22-9) led for more than 40 minutes and built a 12-point fourth-quarter lead before Oregon State began chipping away. A pair of free throws by sophomore forward Timea Gardiner with 1:58 to go into the fourth quarter sent it into overtime.

A jumper by Colorado fifth-year senior guard Jaylyn Sherrod sent the game into double overtime. And 11 made free throws in the final 50 seconds by Oregon State nailed down the Beavers’ spot in the semifinals.

Where does that leave us? Both teams have NCAA Tournament games ahead of them. It’s all a matter of geography. Thanks to Beers’ 27-point, 13-rebound effort, Oregon State will almost surely earn a top-four seed and get hosting rights in the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens the rest of this weekend. But the team that was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 back in October has designs on finishing first.

Rueck said the Beavers’ ability to find a way to win this season comes from the losing they have experienced over the past two seasons.

“Timea mentioned it a little bit ago in the locker room,” Rueck said. “She said, ‘A year ago, we probably wouldn’t have found a way.’ And I said, ‘Why? Why could you now?’ And they just [said], ‘Well, we want it.’ No, because you learned how. Winning is a skill. You have to go through some hellish moments to kind of really understand what it takes.”

Colorado has reason to be concerned about starting its NCAA Tournament in someone else’s gym. The Buffaloes came into the Pac-12 Tournament with five losses in six games. The two postseason games they played — a tournament-record 49-point win over Oregon and this slugfest against the Beavers — showed that they put those struggles in the rearview mirror. But there is little consolation in playing well and losing in March. And the failure to go deeper into the conference tournament, as competitive as it might be, may be costly.

Colorado began Thursday with a No. 14 NCAA NET ranking, jumping five spots overnight after the Oregon win. But this was its third loss to Oregon State this season.

“We have been competitive in every single game we’ve played,” Buffaloes head coach JR Payne told reporters. “We haven’t won them all, but South Carolina is the only team that has. But there isn’t a single game we’ve played that hasn’t come down to the wire against a lot of top-10 and top-15 teams. So I definitely think we should be hosting. But we will anxiously wait until our number is called.”

With that game setting the tone for a thrilling day, let’s review the other Pac-12 quarterfinal games from most to least dramatic.

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USC 65, Arizona 62

A merely mortal game by USC freshman sensation JuJu Watkins and a never-say-die Arizona squad trying to play its way into the NCAA Tournament made for another down to-the-wire finish. But the Trojans came away with the win, as they had twice in the regular season against the Wildcats, and reached the semifinals for the first time since 2014.

“It’s hard to beat a team three times,” said USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “I challenged our team to be the tougher team and I think we did that today.”

Watkins and Rayah Marshall led the way with 17 and 15 points, respectively, and Marshall also finished with 15 rebounds. Watkins connected on a season-low five field goals but she came up big with a driving layup with 20 seconds left that gave USC a 62-57 lead and cemented the win.

USC, which will face UCLA in the other semifinal on Friday, now has 11 single-digit victories this season, the most in the Pac-12.

“Our players came out and really understood the assignment,” Gottlieb said. “I think our early energy gave us a boost that we really needed.”

Arizona couldn’t have done much more — other than win — to prove it’s worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth. After being down 15-2 early, Arizona roared back and briefly led at the end of the third quarter. It went down by 12 points in the fourth quarter, only to close within three in the game’s final minute. After the first quarter, Arizona outscored USC 53-45.

Defensively, the Wildcats forced 21 turnovers — 16 in the first half — and collected 15 steals with a relentless and bruising defensive effort. They got great games from fifth-year senior guard Helena Pueyo (19 points, six assists and six steals) and freshmen Breya Cunningham and Skylar Jones with 14 points each. But it was a rough night for senior forward Esmery Martinez, who shot 1-for-5 for four points.

The Wildcats (17-15) will wait to learn their fate with a No. 33 NET ranking (as of Friday), wins over Stanford and Utah this season, and two close losses to USC in the last 10 days. They closed out the regular season with a 4-2 record and had a 1-1 record in the Pac-12 Tournament.

“Arizona is a tournament team,” Gottlieb said immediately after the game without prompting. “We should have eight teams in the tournament, and it should include the two who went home today who won big games yesterday against postseason-quality teams.”

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes answered the same question simply.

“We deserve to be there,” she said. “I think there is no doubt we belong.”

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Stanford 71, Cal 57

Stanford stared down a 36-28 halftime deficit to rival Cal, which was another team playing Friday in desperation mode. Following up on the program’s first Pac-12 Tournament win in five years, Cal pushed the top-seeded Cardinal (27-4) before the No. 2-ranked team in the country found its way. Stanford won 71-57 and reached the semifinals for the eighth straight season.

Up by two points at the end of the third quarter, Stanford scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter and put together a 19-4 run to take control. That was all without an “A game” from Brink, as head coach Tara VanDerveer admitted.

Brink picked up three first-half fouls and finished the game shooting 5-for-18 from the floor. But forward Kiki Iriafen and guard Elena Bosgana picked up the slack. Iriafen finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds, and Bosgana had a career-high 16 points, including four 3-pointers when the Cardinal needed them most.

Cal created chaos for more than 30 minutes and played hard and with grit. But the Bears have an uphill climb for an NCAA Tournament berth. With a NET ranking of No. 59, no signature wins in conference play and an overall record of 18-14, Cal will likely land elsewhere in the postseason, despite being emphatically improved from the last few seasons.

However, Bears head coach Charmin Smith thinks her team’s resume will stack up against those of other teams from less competitive conferences.

“We have three top-25 NET wins [all over Washington State], and 12 of the 16 bubble teams don’t have any,” Smith said. “And we’ve got top-50 NET wins that eight of the 16 so-called bubble teams don’t have. We put ourselves in a position where our resume is really favorable. We’ve done some work here.”

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UCLA 67, Utah 57

Neither UCLA nor Utah have to worry about getting into the NCAA Tournament, and it’s unlikely that Utah could get back into hosting position except by winning the entire Pac-12 Tournament. UCLA came in with five straight wins, building momentum and bolstering its case for a No. 1 seed. So from that standpoint, the stakes of this game were relatively low.

But nobody told the teams that. They battled for more than three quarters before the Bruins pulled away late.

A 3-pointer by Utah guard Maty Wilke pulled the Utes within 49-44 with 9:49 to go in the game. But UCLA went on an 8-0 run that included 3-pointers by guard Kiki Rice and forward Angela Dugalic to take command. Dugalic led UCLA with 17 points, guard Charisma Osborne kicked in 16 and Rice had 13.

Utah had lost by 30 points at UCLA on Feb. 22 and by 15 to Washington on Senior Day, so the Utes were looking to atone with a strong Pac-12 Tournament run. But they’ll have to wait to do that in the NCAA Tournament.

Utah senior forward Alissa Pili finished with 16 points, and junior guard Kennady McQueen added 14.

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and 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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