Rashanda Gray put up a team-high 26 points, plus six rebounds, three blocks and a steal, but that did not prevent Washington State from showing No. 2-seeded Cal the door in the second round of the PAC-12 Women's Basketball Tournament in Seattle Friday. (File photo by Michael Pimental/isiphotos.com/Courtesy Cal Athletics Media Relations)
Rashanda Gray put up a team-high 26 points, plus six rebounds, three blocks and a steal, but that did not prevent Washington State from showing No. 2-seeded Cal the door in the second round of the PAC-12 Women's Basketball Tournament in Seattle Friday. (File photo by Michael Pimental/isiphotos.com/Courtesy Cal Athletics Media Relations)

2014 PAC-12 Tournament Quarterfinal Wrap: For second straight year, Cal makes an early exit

March 9, 2014 - 1:03am

SEATTLE -- There’s no shortage of intriguing storylines in the Pacific Northwest.

On “Quarterfinal Friday” in Seattle, the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament maintained order in the top half of the bracket, though the USC PAC-12's 5-seed pulled off a "mini-upset" and helped its case for an NCAA bid when it sent fourth-seeded Arizona to the showers in a 59-54 nailbiter.

But the bottom half of the bracket is now in shambles, as seventh-seeded Washington State took care of some "unfinished business" with No. 2-seed California by directing the Golden Bears to the Key Arena exits in a 91-83 upset. For the second-straight year, the Stanford-v.-California, 1 Seed-v.-2 Seed final is something that simply refuses to materialize. A Cinderella from Pullman, Wash., could very realistically find itself playing for the hardware on Sunday night.

In the night cap, third-seeded Oregon State, another of the PAC-12's bubble teams, improved its overall record but probably didn't get as much mileage as USC, when it held serve, putting away 11th-seeded Utah, 50-35. But the Beavers did improve their chances for an invitation to the Big Dance by giving themselves an opportunity to make a statement in Saturday's semifinal against Washington State.

Game Five: No. 1 Stanford 69, No. 9 Colorado 54

A familiar scenario unfolded in the first quarterfinal on Friday afternoon in Seattle: Men or women, East Coast or West Coast, it has often been the case that a top seed – playing an early-bird noon quarterfinal – endures a sluggish game as it gets acquainted with an NBA arena. The deeper, more cavernous shooting background can throw off shooters. The lack of energy compared to an intimate college gymnasium creates an odd vibe. Playing a noon game on a weekday is not a familiar experience. The ninth (or eighth) seed has already played a game in the neutral-court setting, and that lower seed is playing to extend its season or, at the very least, stay in contention for a possible postseason invite. These ingredients have created plenty of close 1-9 games before, and for the first 23 minutes of this game, the same narrative remained in place. Top seeds don’t need to play at their best in quarterfinals, while ninth seeds have to. Yet, if the top seed stays sluggish for a long enough period of time, trouble can emerge.

The challenge for the top seed in a “sleepyhead” conference tournament quarterfinal is to find one or two plays that can break the spell in a sluggish game, snapping an elite team out of a funk and ushering it into a calm, relaxed state. For 23 minutes, Stanford (29-2, 17-1) lacked that play. Just how sluggish was the top seed in the first half of this game? Try this stat on for size: The Cardinal hit one – yes, one – shot beyond four feet in the first half. Not even the wealthiest Stanford alum could have bought a jumper for the Cardinal.

Yet, as bad as the first 23 minutes were for Stanford, the 24th minute offered a breakthrough.

Chiney Ogwumike, who had been missing bunnies and foul shots left and right, hit a three-pointer with 16:57 left and flashed a smile that could have lit up the Space Needle. Moments later, Lili Thompson dropped in a layup, then drained a three, and then knocked down a very tough contested eight-foot fadeaway, finishing through contact. She converted the "and-one" and just like that, in the span of only one minute and 45 seconds, all the work Colorado had done in those first 23 minutes evaporated. A 28-27 lead for the Buffs turned into a 38-30 deficit with 15:12 on the clock.

Understand this: Stanford gained the same quality of shot throughout Friday’s contest. The Ogwumike three and subsequent Thompson flurry marked the turning point in the proceedings. Before those two events, Stanford shooters grasped the ball too tightly; shots were pinched off, with truncated shooting motions. Free throws constantly spun off the rim and bounced away, which points to excessive rotation on the ball. After those two aforementioned events, Stanford shooters released the ball more fluidly. Shots floated through the air and splashed through the center of the net. Foul shots ceased to be an adventure, and Stanford piled up points as a result.

As for Colorado, which finishes the season at 17-14, 6-12, Brittany Wilson – the best player on the floor for the first 23 minutes, before Stanford took charge – was seen limping near the 13:30 mark of the second half. She was short on almost every one of her second-half field-goal attempts. She lost her legs, as did Colorado’s players in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament semifinal loss to the very same colossus from Palo Alto. Even when not playing at its best, Stanford creates such problems with its size and length. The Cardinal are very hard to contend with on the boards without fouling. (Games against Connecticut wind up being the exceptions.)

Up Next: Stanford moves on to face fifth-seeded U.S.C. in Saturday's semifinals.

Game Six: No. 5 USC 59, No. 4 Arizona State 57

The Women of Troy took the court on Friday afternoon knowing that if they were going to make the 2014 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, they needed, at the very least,  to beat the fourth-seeded and nationally ranked Arizona State Sun Devils. To do this, USC needed to find some degree of rhythm on offense, something not very much in evidence in its ragged first-round win over Arizona.

In the first half, that rhythm didn’t exist, but it emerged for most of the second half. It disappeared at the end, but that’s when defense carried this team to the finish line, and quite possibly to the good side of the bubble.

For the most part, the two sides traded baskets for the game's first nine minutes, with neither side taking a lead of more than a handful of points, and the score still stood tied at 12 at the 11:03 mark after Alexyz Vaioletama drained a trey to bring USC even. However, the Women of Troy would not score again until Courtney Jaco hit a pair from the charity stripe with 6:34 to go in the half.

Meanwhile, Deja Mann knocked down a jumper to ignite a 9-0 Sun Devil run and put Arizona State up, 21-12.

USC would not be the only one to suffer a major scoring drough in this surprisingly evenly balanced contest, however. While the Trojansposted only Violetama's three points in the eight-minute span from 14:39 to 6:34, Arizona State tallied only two points in the final 7:26 of the half. Both teams created good shots but struggled to hit them, as a result of which, the first half ended in a 23-23 tie.

In the second half, both teams played at a faster pace and had more success getting directly to the rim. Shooting percentages and the scoring pace both improved before the under-16 timeout. This game was going to turn based on the ability of one or two players to rise above the bricklaying and knock down some shots.  Just before the midpoint of the second half, USC’s Ariya Crook did just that, draining two threes to give the fifth seed a working margin of eight points (40-32) when the under-12 timeout arrived. In the next few minutes, Kate Oliver smoothly threw down a few long jumpers to maintain USC’s cushion.

USC’s length didn’t always deny Arizona State a pathway to the rim, but the Women of Troy did use their wingspan to clog passing lanes and force turnovers. At times, the Sun Devils got caught on the baseline and tried to throw a pass to the top of the key. USC picked off these passes, collecting a series of takeaways that began to add up. Arizona State finished the day with 18 turnovers, a central reason it fell short. 

What kept the fourth-seeded Sun Devils in the game midway through the second half was their ability to hit the boards. Arizona State attacked the offensive glass, pouncing on misses from the weak side and finishing with 14 offensive boards on 32 missed shots, nearing 50 percent for the afternoon. Throughout the second stanza, USC coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke constantly exhorted her teamto box out, but ASU continued to succeed in chasing down missed shots.

USC fouls also provided Arizona State a window through which to reenter the fray, and powered by strong play from Joy Burke and Kelsey Moos, the two players on the Sun Devils roster who are blessed with an appreciable mix of size and skill, ASU sliced USC’s lead to two, at 51-49, with six minutes left.

The Women of Troy were aware that they sat right on the middle of the NCAA tournament bubble, and that kind of big-picture awareness can sometimes be the worst enemy of the competitive athlete. Tunnel-vision focus is the athlete’s friend, but USC got nervous in the final minutes of this game, missing not one, not two, but three front ends of one-and-ones in the final 2:44, the last one coming with 6.8 seconds left and USC clinging to a slender, 59-57 lead.

However, Cooper-Dyke had her team prepared to respond to a miss. Organized transition defense prevented Arizona State’s Mann from getting any closer than 25 feet from the basket, and her long attempt at a game-winning three was well short of the basket.

Up Next: U.S.C., now 20-12, 11-7, advances to Saturday's semifinal to face top-seeded Stanford, where the Women of Troy can play with far less pressure, knowing that they  have bagged the quality win they needed and making their wait on Selection Monday (March 17) a lot easier to handle. A win over Stanford Saturday would pretty much seal the day on an at-large bid, but the Trojans certainly helped their cause on Friday.

Game Seven: No. 7 Washington State 91, No. 2 California 83

Cal cannot claim that it wasn't put on notice.

After Thursday night’s first-round victory  over Oregon at the Pac-12 Women’s Tournament, Washington State head coach June Daugherty announced, “We have some unfinished business” with the California Golden Bears.

That bit of business, which relates to the hunger to avenge an overtime loss to Cal in Berkeley one week ago, is no longer unfinished.

That loss might have been a heartbreaker at the time, but taking the league's "big dogs" to OT instilled a sense of self-belief on the part of Daugherty and her charges. Daugherty thought she was going to catch Cal, and her belief was rewarded, as her team put on a clinical offensive performance, helped along by timely offensive rebounds and critical California mistakes, and pulled off the first big shocker of the week in Seattle, dismissing the second seed in the tournament and a program that made the Final Four last year.

The game began with a breakneck pace, easily the fastest tempo of the entire day in Seattle. From the beginning, Washington State established itself in three areas: the offensive glass, getting to the rim, and hitting the open three when it became available.

Cal hangs its hat on rebounding, but in the first half, Washington State battled the Bears to a relative standoff on the glass, 20-18 overall and 7-5 on the offensive boards. Washington State hit 48.5 percent of its field goals in the first half (16-of-33), while Cal was right there at 47.2 percent (17-of-36). This wasn’t the first half of Washington State-Oregon the night before, but it still entertained the crowd. More significantly, the first half produced game trends that favored the underdog from the Palouse. 

Cal's Reshonda Gray established herself as an offensive force in the low post, racking up 26 points. Her teammate Gennifer Brandon added 20.  But in the end, none of that really mattered.Neither did it matter enough that Cal settled into a good jump-shooting rhythm for much of the first half, or that the Golden Bears began to hit the boards with more authoritativeness midway through the second half.

Why? Because Cal couldn’t defend, and on the few occasions that it did, it failed to box out.

Cal’s defense is what guided the Bears to the Final Four a year ago, but that level of defense never made an appearance on Friday night against Wazzu. The Bears never did perform up to the standard set by head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who used two timeouts in the first half to get her team’s attention and kept burning through those timeouts as the game continued. Gottlieb tried to shake her team into a better defensive mindset, spending her final timeout with 3:50 left in regulation, but none of those moves lit a fire under her team at the defensive end of the floor. 

Washington State got what it wanted on offense – early, often, and late, whenever it needed a bucket.  The Cougars’ dynamic backcourt of Lia Galdeira (28 points) and Tia Presley (19 points) beat Cal’s guards off the dribble. The Golden Bears' bigs generally weren’t able to stop the ball near the rim, and when the Bears did collapse into the paint, the Cougars’ wing shooters hit threes, with Sage Romberg (3-of-5 from three-point range) and Taylor Edmondson (2-of-3) contributing to the cause. Galdeira added to Washington State’s three-point barrage, hitting 3-of-6 triples.

The biggest three of the night came in the final two minutes of regulation, when a desperate Cal rally shaved what had been a 15-point deficit down to six, at 84-78. Washington State ran the shot clock down to the last few seconds. Galdeira, working one-on-one against Cal’s Afure Jemerigbe on the right wing, dribbled to the foul line and was able to draw the weakside defender just enough that Presley was left open in the left corner. Galdeira hit Presley. Presley hit the three. Washington State found the dagger it needed to finish its business against the Bears. 

All sorts of little things went wrong for Cal in this game, part of the formula when a seven seed upsets a two seed. Star guard Brittany Boyd picked up four of her five fouls in quick two-foul segments. Boyd committed two charges within 23 seconds near the 13-minute mark of the first half. She then picked up her fourth and fifth fouls within a 33-second span late in the second half, fouling out with 5:47 left and robbing the Bears of a three-point shooting threat. Cal is not a good three-point shooting team, and the Bears hit just 2-of-13 shots from long distance, a key reason they weren’t able to come back.

Ultimately, the Cougars did not look like a seven seed; they looked like a team that can win this tournament. (Remember, they pushed Stanford hard in Pullman earlier this season.) They ran California out of the building before committing some nervous errors that enabled the Bears to get closer – but not too close – in the final minutes of this game. Washington State’s offense clicked all evening long.

Here’s a tidy way to sum up this game: If Stanford lacked a shooting rhythm in the first half of Friday’s afternoon session, Cal lacked a defensive rhythm as it played the first game of Friday’s night session. Stanford eventually snapped out of its offensive funk, but it’s possible to get into a defensive funk as well.

Cal never straightened itself out at the defensive end of the floor. As a result, the Bears will once again watch the Pac-12 Tournament final from Berkeley.

Game Eight: No. 3 Oregon State 50, No. 11 Utah 35 

The last quarterfinal of the day never acquired any electricity or competitive texture. The buzz from Washington State’s upset of Cal at the start of the night session did not carry into the back end of Friday’s second quarterfinal doubleheader. The building lost energy, and a No. 11 seed needs to soar if it’s going to outclass a third seed 24 hours after beating a sixth seed.

The Utah worked very hard to beat the Washington Huskies in Seattle, but one night later, nothing worked for the underdog from Salt Lake City. The Utes looked tired from the start, scoring just four points in the game’s first nine minutes.

Nothing meaningfully improved for Utah as the first half continued. Shots from every spot on the floor – many of them open, a few of them contested, some only three or four feet from the rim – didn’t fall through the bucket. Leaden legs – on jumpers but also on putback attempts, when a second-effort vertical spring is needed in traffic – prevented Utah from accomplishing anything at the offensive end of the floor.

Oregon State did nothing spectacular, but the Beavers were steadily and relentlessly sound. They hit the open shot. They didn’t waste too many possessions. They finished plays near the basket. Utah outperformed OSU on the offensive glass by a 7-1 margin, but the size and length of Beaver center Ruth Hamblin served as a deterrent to Utah’s offensive threats, especially Michelle Plouffe, who went 1-of-11 from the field in the first half. Utah hit just 5 of 35 field goals in the first 20 minutes, and when a team posts that kind of stat line in a half, a 19-point halftime deficit (32-13) should not come across as a surprising result.

The second half proved to be utterly devoid of drama. Utah pulled within 13 points of Oregon State on a few occasions, but it never could produce a quality possession whenever it had a chance to get any closer. Each of the day’s first three games offered some form of drama – Stanford’s struggles in the first 23 minutes of play; USC and ASU playing a nip-and-tuck game throughout; Washington State lighting up the night to bust the brackets and Berkeley – but this game fell flat.

Up Next: Not that Oregon State will mind. The Beavers weren’t physically taxed, and they should not be worn down as they prepare for Washington State, a seventh-seeded team that will be playing its third game in as many days.  


Semifinals: Sunday, March 9

Game Nine: No. 5 USC (20-12, 11-7) v. No. 1 Stanford  (30-2, 17-1) -- 6 p.m. PDT/9 p.m. EDT* (P12N)

(*Note Sunday's shift to Daylight Savings Times)

Stanford has now familiarized itself with the Key Arena shooting environment, and it will play Saturday evening at a much more familiar body-clock hour of 6 p.m. local time. One should rarely assign too much weight to a so-so quarterfinal performance. It’s in the semifinal round when a conference tournament generally tests the quality of a top seed.

Stanford knows that as long as it struggles to make jump shots, opposing coaches (such as USC’s Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who does have some size and length on her roster) are going to pack in their defenses, throw bodies at Ogwumike, and take their chances with Bonnie Samuelson shooting threes. Samuelson’s release is slow and mechanical, which means that perimeter defenders can bother her shot if they’re able to maintain some proximity to her. Some shooters can get off a shot (an effective one) with just inches of space, but Samuelson needs a few feet. This might sound like a broken record, but it remains paramount: Stanford has to be a more effective jump shooting team and a more reliable force at the foul line if it’s going to make the Final Four. The opponent will have a say in how this game proceeds, but Stanford will have the final say, regardless of the ultimate outcome. That’s just the way it is in the Pac-12.

Game Ten: No. 7 Washington State (17-15, 9) vs. No. 3  Oregon State (22-9, 13-5) -- 8:30 p.m PDT/ 11:30 p.m. PDT (P12N)

June Daugherty’s business with Cal is finished.

Her business in this tournament is not.

Washington State is two wins from an automatic bid to the Big Dance, but before taking care of Sunday, the Cougars have to get through Saturday’s late game against Oregon State.

It seems foolish to try to draw any firm conclusions from Oregon State’s win over Utah. The Beavers played a solid game against an 11th-place team, and that’s it. Washington would have provided a tougher challenge in a more revved-up Seattle environment, but Oregon State avoided that hornet’s nest and took full advantage of it. Now, though, the Beavers should get a genuine challenge from a seventh seed that’s playing more like a fourth seed. Washington State is not only dictating the tempo of the games it plays; the Cougars are hitting big shots and chasing down their misses. They have two lethal guards who can create off the dribble and hit from the perimeter. Washington State also has the wing shooters who can catch passes from Galdeira and Presley, making them very tough to defend. This is a 7-versus-3 seed matchup, but it feels very much like a coin flip, especially since Washington State should bring a large walk-up crowd to Key Arena for this contest.