The first day of the 2014 Pac-12 Women's Tournament provided four genuinely interesting games, albeit for different sets of reasons. Colorado started the day with efficient three-point shooting, while Washington -- playing just a few miles from its Seattle campus -- ended the day by hitting only one field-goal attempt in the final nine minutes of regulation, while opposing Utah's Michelle Plouffe put on a one-woman show. Game Two between Arizona and USC never found a rhythm, chiefly because USC -- hoping it could get through the day with minimal energy before a possible two-game gauntlet of Arizona State (quarterfinals) and Stanford (semifinals) -- was stifled much of the way by Arizona's defensive intensity. Game Three between Oregon and Washington State was the polar opposite of Arizona-USC, as two teams willingly decided to play an open-court shoot-out with freedom and fluidity. Thursday witnessed four distinct basketball specimens, four games with entirely different personalities. If Friday's quarterfinals offer the same degree of variety, basketball fans should be entertained from noon until 11 p.m
(9) Colorado 76, (8) UCLA 65
In the first game of the tournament and a midweek afternoon, Colorado and UCLA had to create their own energy, something the teams in the night session did not have to worry about. Injury-addled UCLA held the momentum for the first 26 minutes of play, taking a 46-38 lead with just over 14 minutes left in regulation. The Bruins held Colorado scoreless for a span of almost five and a half minutes in the first half, but UCLA’s surge at the start of the second half was powered by a 17-point offensive outpouring in under six minutes of play.
Just before the under-12-minute media timeout, though, Colorado found a finishing kick that remained in evidence until the final horn. The Buffaloes used the three-point shot to their advantage all game long, but when Brittany Wilson and Lauren Huggins tossed in triples on consecutive possessions just before the 12-minute mark, Colorado had tied the Bruins with an 8-0 run. That series of events clearly emboldened the Buffaloes, but it just as evidently seemed to demoralize the Bruins, who have not enjoyed a deep bench this season and knew that one of their anchors would not be available to help them.
The Bruins' Thea Lemberger, who did not play in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament due to an elbow injury, was not medically cleared to play this game either. Lemberger had suffered an illness that kept her out of this past Sunday’s regular-season finale at Utah. Her absence from the lineup – and more specifically, the backcourt – hugely influenced the course of this game in the final 12 minutes. UCLA’s Nirra Fields answered the bell, scoring with regularity even though Lemberger was not available to space the floor at the offensive end and distribute the ball. However, while Fields was able to bust through Colorado’s defenses, Lemberger’s absence enabled the Buffaloes to be choosy in their focus on other matchups. Colorado bottled up UCLA’s leading scorer, Atonye Nyingifa, limiting the senior to just three points on one-of-10 shooting in the first half. (Nyingifa managed to pick it up in the second stanza, to finish with 13 points on six-of-18, but on this day, the Bruins needed more and didn't get it.) Madeleine Brooks came off the bench for 12 points, draining four of her eight three-point attempts, but that would be UCLA's only success (in 16 tries) from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, five different Buffaloes would contribute to Colorado's eight-of-16 three-point assault.
UCLA buckled under the weight of Colorado’s pressure in the final 12 minutes, as the game morphed into a battle between an individual – Fields, who finished with a game-high 24 – and a team from Boulder that received meaningful contributions up and down the roster. Colorado attacked the offensive glass as a collective unit and piled up a number of made foul shots that created a 53-48 lead with 8:26 left. After a few traded baskets, Colorado received made field goals from three different players in the course of an 8-0 run that extended CU’s lead to 65-54 with 3:52 left. UCLA pulled within six, at 68-62, with 1:20 to go, but the Bruins got no closer than that. Lemberger might have been able to win this game for UCLA, but Colorado made the most of a favorable in-game situation.
(5) USC 59, (12) Arizona 54
The Women of Troy never really separated themselves from the Arizona Wildcats in the second game of Thursday’s afternoon session… but they did survive. In a game that started ugly and remained ugly, USC – due more to Arizona’s failures than its own successes – got the result it wanted.
The process attached to the result was certainly not what USC head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke had in mind.
Here’s a mind-blowing statistic that captured the nature of Arizona-USC in full: The Wildcats endured two field-goal droughts of nearly six minutes (5:49 in the first half, 5:55 in the second). The fact that USC, in all that time, could not pull away from Arizona showed how much the Women of Troy struggled on Thursday. The Trojans committed 17 turnovers and went just four-of-11 from the foul line. One of their star players, Cassie Harberts, scored just six points in a body-snatched performance (three-of-nine from the field, 0-of-four from the charity stripe). All in all, USC played poorly enough to lose… but Arizona committed 16 turnovers and hit just 36.5 percent of its shots. With 18 seconds left and USC leading by a score of 57-54, Arizona’s Carissa Crutchfield missed a layup, which represented the Wildcats’ last gasp in a season that is mercifully over.
(7) Washington State 107, (10) Oregon 100
If Arizona and USC never managed to break free from a slow tempo, a plodding style, and an utter lack of aesthetic quality, the first game of Thursday’s night session was the exact opposite. All the way until the final minute, Washington State and Oregon sustained a breakneck pace and continued to hit shots. Defensive rebounding was nonexistent (of course, with that many balls sailing through the nets, there weren't as many as usual to haul down), and transition defense often suffered, but the Cougars and Ducks also put on a shooting exhibition that immensely entertained the Key Arena crowd and anyone who watched on Pac-12 Network.
How wild was the last game of Paul Westhead’s tenure as Oregon’s head coach? The “Guru Of Go” watched his team score 55 points in the first half… and trail by four at the intermission. In the second half, Washington State was content to continue to run and play a Westhead-style game. The Cougars were able to thrive while playing at Oregon’s preferred pace. The two teams just kept running the floor, reveling in the ability to play a 94-foot game in a tournament setting. The revved-up style of play remained in evidence until the final minutes of regulation.
With neither team interested in slowing down, Washington State – leading 98-95 at the two-minute mark of regulation – had to feel just a bit uncomfortable. The Cougars could not shake their lower-seeded opponent, much as USC couldn’t break free from Arizona (in a game that was 180 degrees different in terms of tempo and shotmaking prowess). However, when WSU guard Lia Galdeira hit the game’s biggest shot, a three-pointer with 1:49 to go that extended the Cougars’ lead to six (101-95), Oregon wasn’t able to mount a comeback.
Washington State didn’t play a lot of defense against Oregon, but then again, it didn’t need to. Galdeira and teammate Tia Presley each scored 31 points for the Cougars. The two dynamos also combined for 16 rebounds and six assists. Oregon offered its own 1-2 punch, with Jillian Alleyne and Chrishae Rowe keeping the Ducks in contention until the final minute. Alleyne soared for 28 points and 21 rebounds, while Rowe scored 29.
(11) Utah 65, (6) Washington 53
The final game of the night witnessed a scenario in which the Washington Huskies tempted the fates and got burned.
If you recall, Washington performed poorly in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament first round game, but the Huskies – playing in Seattle – found enough inspiration to slide past Oregon in the 5-12 matchup. This year, the Huskies were once again off their game in the first round, but they were unable to attain a higher level of shooting accuracy and offensive continuity as the night unfolded in Key Arena. Utah, the No. 11 seed, ambushed Washington to open up the bracket for third-seeded Oregon State, which won’t have to play what amounts to a road game against a crowd favorite in Friday’s late quarterfinal.
Last year, Washington mounted a furious second-half rally in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. The Huskies managed to dig out of a 39-28 halftime deficit by scoring 41 points after the intermission. In particular, the Huskies were able to score 15 points in a span of 5:34 midway through the half, thereby finding the ability to get Oregon’s defense off balance and change the flow of play. That kind of rally – fueled by moments of clarity on offense – never materialized this time around against Utah.
The Huskies did stay close for three-fourths of this game, trailing by a scant 51-49 margin with just over nine minutes left. Moreover, their defense remained quite effective, surrendering only nine points to the Utes in the next seven and a half minutes.
There was just one problem for the Huskies: They went bone dry from the field in those final nine minutes, ruining a good defensive effort.
The craziest, most improbable statistic to emerge from Utah-Washington was that the two teams combined to make only three field-goal attempts (two for the Utes, one for the Huskies) in the final 7:56 of regulation. Washington scored only four points in the final 9:06, which made Utah’s 14 points in that same span feel prolific by comparison.
All of the game’s stars – Utah’s Michelle Plouffe (30 points) and Washington’s backcourt tandem of Kelsey Plum (20 points) and Jazmine Davis (18 points) – did their work in the first 31 minutes of play. Plouffe carried the Utes to the upset, singlehandedly pouring in nearly half of her team's total offensive production for the night, but scored only four of those points in the final nine minutes, two of them on last-minute foul shots when the game had already been decided. Davis hit two foul shots when the game had largely slipped away from the Huskies, who trailed 60-51 with under three minutes remaining.
To put things in perspective, it’s not as though Utah pulled away… a more accurate way of describing the final nine minutes is that Washington became paralyzed – by its lack of shooting confidence and an inability to get anything easy against Utah’s defense.
It’s true that Plum and Davis combined to give Washington 38 points, but those numbers rang hollow for two reasons: First, those points were the product of 9-of-30 field goal shooting. Neither player was particularly efficient. Second, all the non-Plum, non-Davis players on the Huskies’ roster combined for a grand total of 15 points. No third scorer emerged for the one team that had been able to defeat Stanford in Pac-12 competition this season. UW’s offense lit up the Cardinal’s defense, but against the next-to-last-place team in the conference, the Huskies had no answers. It was that kind of night for the No. 6 seed.
QUARTERFINALS: QUICK OVERVIEW
(9) Colorado vs. (1) Stanford
Colorado roared past UCLA in the final 12 minutes of regulation on Thursday. A big part of the Buffaloes’ rally was their quickness to loose balls, especially on the offensive glass. Stanford is more active than UCLA, so Colorado can’t rely on its ability to hit the boards. Stanford is too powerful and long in the paint to get beaten in that facet of competition. Colorado needs to hit the three-point shot early and often, extending Stanford’s defense and setting up dribble penetration in the second half. That’s Colorado’s most realistic path to victory in a game that probably won’t be all that close.
(5) USC vs. (4) Arizona State
This game is freighted with uncertainty. Arizona State had the look of a tired team the final few weeks of the season, a team that definitely needed some rest. Will the Sun Devils be fresh in this game, or will they be rusty and out of rhythm? As for USC, a good team that has to play a first-round game in a four-round tournament will often slog through the 5-12 matchup and then decide to play better in the 5-versus-4 quarterfinal. Yet, it is sometimes the case that a poor performance (such as USC’s ugly win over Arizona on Thursday) is the harbinger of more troubles in the next round. Which versions of Arizona State and USC will show up here? This could be a close game, but it could also be a blowout in either direction – all outcomes seem possible here.
(7) Washington State vs. (2) California
This might be the best quarterfinal of the four on Friday. Why? Right after surviving Oregon in Thursday night’s first round, Washington State head coach June Daugherty told Pac-12 Network interviewer Jill Savage, “We have some unfinished business with Cal,” a reference to the Cougars’ overtime loss to the Golden Bears last week in Berkeley. That kind of uncloaked bravado could hint at a spirited performance from Washington State. The Cougars will need it, because they’re not going to score as freely or as easily against Cal as they did against Oregon.
(11) Utah vs. (3) Oregon State
The Utes’ defense was bothersome against Washington, but Oregon State is balanced in ways that Washington never was. Utah put forth a lot of energy to win its first-round game. Will Plouffe and the Utes have enough energy left to pull of a second upset in Seattle?