March 4, 2023 

Underdogs continue their reign at the Pac-12 Tournament

UCLA's Charisma Osborne: Win over Stanford 'might be one of my favorite games that I've ever played'

LAS VEGAS — The Pac-12 Tournament has had two upsets every day leading up to the semifinals on Friday. So why should we be surprised that fifth-seeded UCLA and seventh-seeded Washington State upset Stanford and Colorado, respectively? Take a look at how the two underdogs advanced to Sunday’s championship game.

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Game of the Day: Stanford vs. UCLA. UCLA had an epic comeback that pushed it to the championship game. Oh, and it beat Stanford, which qualifies as huge.

Moment of the Day: After Washington State advanced to its first-ever championship game, its band and cheerleaders wanted some TV time.

Quote of the Day: “This might be No. 1, I think, honestly,” UCLA senior guard Charisma Osborne said of where the win over Stanford ranks among her favorite games at UCLA. “I think, too, we just had so much fun playing. It wasn’t pretty the entire time, but even if you saw us after the game, we had so much joy and stuff like that. So I think this actually might be one of my favorite games that I’ve ever played.”

Tweet of the Day: The Cougs want singer Shania Twain, who tweeted in support of the team on Friday night, to attend the championship game.

UCLA's Gina Conti attempts a 3-pointer as a Washington State defender gets a hand up.
UCLA’s Gina Conti attempts a 3-pointer in a Pac-12 Tournament game against Stanford at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., on March 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Powers Imagery)

Game 1: No. 5 UCLA defeats No. 1 Stanford 69-65

Summary: The fifth-seeded Bruins came back from a 16-point deficit midway through the third quarter to stun top-seeded Stanford 69-65. The Bruins dominated the fourth quarter, outscoring the Cardinal 29-15 by shooting 54% and knocking down 13 of 15 free throws. Four Bruins scored in double figures, led by freshman Kiki Rice’s 22 points.

Stanford thoughts: The Cardinal had a great start to the game, outscoring the Bruins by 13 in the first half. Everything was working for Stanford: Their defense was locked in, holding the Bruins to 27% shooting and making them work for every basket. Stanford also shot 48% in the first half, and junior Cameron Brink was working inside. She was getting great looks and fighting through every defender UCLA through at her. The Cardinal were also finding success from the mid-range in the first half, with Brink and senior Haley Jones getting good looks.

However, everything that went right for Stanford in the first half went wrong in the second half. The Cardinal offense looked out of rhythm. They weren’t getting the same looks inside, and UCLA forward Emily Bessoir did a phenomenal job making every look for Brink difficult. Brink only shot 1-for-6 in the second half. Stanford senior sharpshooter Hannah Jump had one of the worst games of her career, not hitting a single shot and only attempting three triples.

Jump’s inability to find open shots limited Stanford’s options on offense. The Cardinal offense has become one-dimensional this season with a lack of 3-point shooting. It needs to dominate in the paint to open up the shooting. If Jump isn’t making threes, it makes it harder for Stanford to score.

Also, Stanford’s defense struggled mightily in the second half, especially the fourth quarter. UCLA hit some tough shots, but a lot of its shots were open. Stanford doesn’t usually give up 29 points in a quarter, but UCLA did that in the fourth and that decided the game. The Cardinal did get good minutes from Agnes Emma-Nnopu and Fran Belibi off the bench, but again, it’s become hard for them to get consistent offense when they are so one-dimensional.

“The Pac-12 is the toughest conference in the country and we’re proud to have won the regular season,” Jones said postgame. “We didn’t get the tournament, which is a tough pill to swallow. But … it just prepares us for what’s next. Our season doesn’t end here. I think that we want to continue to play together as a unit. This is a special team, and I don’t think that we’re anywhere close to our ceiling. So I think that if we’re able to get things together in these next few weeks, continue to play together, make adjustments, this and that, whatever it may be, then I think that we have a lot of good stuff ahead of us throughout the rest of March and beginning of April.”

UCLA thoughts: The Bruins showed tremendous poise and fight. Things weren’t going their way the first 24 minutes of the game, but they didn’t let that faze them. Their offense wasn’t there for much of the first half, but they came out with new life in the second half. They brought the energy to the defensive end, and at the beginning of the fourth quarter, they started to chip away at Stanford’s lead. It wasn’t one big run; it was stringing together good possessions. The Bruins cut the Cardinal lead to one possession four times in the fourth quarter and finally took the lead with two minutes to go.

Their offense in the fourth quarter ran through Rice. She had 11 points in the fourth, including the shot that gave UCLA the lead. She also hit three clutch free throws down the stretch. UCLA’s underrated star was Gina Conti. She hit some huge 3-pointers when the Bruins were closing the gap and she displayed great leadership whenever the Bruins huddled, but her biggest play of the game was tipping out a missed free throw to seal the game for the Bruins.

Bessoir was also huge, both literally and figuratively. She played tremendous defense on Cameron Brink in the second half. She also hit a couple of big 3-pointers, including one in the third quarter when UCLA was starting its comeback.

The upperclassmen for the Bruins played with so much poise and calmness. The three of them — Conti, Bessoir and Charisma Osborne — were a huge reason they knocked off the No. 1 seed and have a chance to win a Pac-12 title.

“[I] couldn’t be any more proud of [Osborne and Rice and] their mentality, their belief, their willingness to adjust and respond to adversity,” said UCLA head coach Cori Close. “This is what makes sports so special and that’s what makes them transformational for them, not only in basketball, but also in their lives. Couldn’t be more proud of the building block that a win like this, in the way that it happened, does for our program short-term as well as long-term.”

Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker takes a jump shot.
Washington State guard Charlisse Leger-Walker takes a jumper in a Pac-12 Tournament game against Colorado at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., on March 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Powers Imagery)

Game 2: No. 7 Washington State defeats No. 3 Colorado 61-49

Summary: With a tie game entering the fourth quarter, Washington State went on a 12-2 run midway through the final quarter to advance to its first-ever Pac-12 championship. The Cougars had seemed to be on the ropes after Colorado ended the third quarter on a 12-0 run, but they dominated the fourth quarter 23-11. The Cougs had three players in double figures, led by junior guard Charlisse Leger-Walker’s 15.

Colorado thoughts: The Buffaloes came out of the gates very slowly. The Buffaloes just couldn’t get any offense going in the first quarter, shooting 32% and turning the ball over 11 times. The offensive improved a little in the second quarter, but Colorado still found itself down 11 at halftime. The game was played the way Colorado wanted it to be in the first half, slow and defensive.

Then the third quarter came, and it was a different story. Right after the media timeout, the Buffs exploded. They went on a 12-0 run over the final 3:37 of the quarter, and they did it in traditional Colorado fashion. They forced Washington State into turnovers and started playing in transition. Senior guard Jaylyn Sherrod scored 13 points in the game, seven of which came in the third quarter and six of which were part of the 12-0 run. When Sherrod gets a head of steam in transition, she is hard to stop, and she got downhill during that run.

In the fourth quarter, Colorado had multiple opportunities to take its first lead of the game but never could capitalize. A big reason for Colorado’s struggles was that Quay Miller, the team’s leading scorer, scored zero points. In fact, she scored zero points in the entire tournament. She took seven shots on Friday and missed them all. Washington State was being very physical with her and led to a lot of her struggles.

Aaronette Vonleh had a very nice game, though, for Colorado inside, scoring 18 points and missing just two shots. She was able to get the position inside that Miller couldn’t. Now Colorado will wait and see whether its play in the Pac-12 ournament was enough to earn a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“[I’m] proud of our team for our fight that I think was clearly on display for a large part of the second half,” said Colorado head coach JR Payne. “[I’m] disappointed with the outcome. Disappointed with some things that we could have executed more effectively and things that we really felt like we needed to do to win the game. But this time of year, every team can beat every team, and I think we know that and unfortunately learned it firsthand today. But proud of the season we’ve had so far and very excited for the season that will continue to happen.”

Washington State thoughts: The Cougars took control from the jump and never looked back. Early on, their defense was suffocating, and it stayed that way for most of the game. In three of four quarters, they held Colorado under 12 points.

Offensively, it was a very balanced night for Washington State. It finished with three players in double figures, but many people contributed. Junior center Jessica Clarke came in off the bench in the second quarter and had a quick impact, scoring easy buckets inside. Freshman guard Astera Tuhina came in off the bench to score 10 points, including a big 3-pointer that put Washington State back in the lead after Colorado tied it going into the fourth. Incredibly, Washington State went on its 12-2 run in the fourth quarter with Leger-Walker on the bench.

However, the three stars were Leger-Walker, Bella Murekatete and Ula Motuga. Leger-Walker did what she always does, which is a little bit of everything. She hit her patented mid-range turnaround jump shot, she knocked down a 3-pointer, and she made so many smart plays. She has so many tricks in her bag and can use any of them at any time. She also does a good job of recognizing how defenses are playing her and taking advantage of even the smallest mistake.

Murekatete has really blossomed over her four years at Washington State. She had 12 points and eight rebounds on Friday and was causing a lot of problems for the Colorado defense. She scored the second basket of Washington State’s run, which was an and-one layup, but she missed the free throw.

Motuga only scored nine points, but she grabbed six rebounds and played tremendous defense. She had the assignment of Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili on Thursday, and on Friday, she took Miller. Just like with Pili, Motuga shut Miller down and took her completely out of the game. Motuga also hit 3-pointers to both start and end the Cougars’ 12-2 run in the fourth. Her play in the Pac-12 Tournament can’t be understated.

Washington State did struggle in the third quarter but showed it has the poise and calmness to respond as an elite team. Now the Cougars get a chance to play for the program’s first-ever Pac-12 title.

“I don’t know that we [have] really realized it right now,” said head coach Kamie Ethridge. “I was just amazed at the tears in our locker room and from our older players. They have gone through so much and they have come out on the other side of it. We had losing records when Ula got here, and she chose a program that was at the bottom of the league almost, and nothing came easy, and yet think of that journey five years later and what she stands for and represents and the shots she makes and the leadership she has and what she’s done for our program.

“So it’s just unbelievably fun to see their tears of joy and reflection on what they have accomplished. … This is the greatest ride I’ve been on with a team, so I’m going to just sit back and keep riding it.”

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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