2014 PAC-12 Tournament Semifinals Wrap: Gritty USC hands No. 4 Stanford its first-ever PAC-12 Tournament semifinal loss
SEATTLE — There will be a new conference tournament champion in PAC-12 for the first time in eight season.
Stanford's longstanding supremacy in PAC-12 women's basketball, as evidenced by its long string of both regular-season and conference-tournament championships, has become so entrenched that the tournament itself has come to be referred to unofficially as "the Stanford Invitational." The Cardinal have won the tournament championship, and with it the league's automatic bid the NCAA tournament, every season since 2005-06.
In an upset that demonstrated the growing depth and parity of this often under-rated league, a gritty fifth-seeded USC squad ground out a 72-68 win over the top-seed Cardinal in Saturday night's quarterfinals. As a result, 2014 will go down in the record books as the first time in the 13-year history of the event that Stanford (29-3, 17-1) will not be participating in the championship game. Instead, the Women of Troy will meet the Oregon State Beavers in Seattle's Key Arena in the title game of the PAC-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament at 6 p.m. PDT Sunday night, with both teams primed to prove they are ready for the NCAA Tournament after long absences.
The Trojans last went to the NCAAs in the 2005-2006 season.
The Trojans entered the tournament barely clinging to the bubble with an 18-12 overall record, 11-7 in conference play. With Saturday's semifinal victory, USC won its third game of the tournament, improved its overall record to 21-12 and solidified its NCAA tournament resume with a win over the Cardinal who are ranked fourth in the country by the Associated Press and No. 3 in the Coaches' Poll.
With its 29-3, 17-1 record and wins over several of the top teams in the country, Stanford, of course, can cross Selection Monday off its worry list: The Cardinal don't need the PAC-12's automatic bid this season any more than they ever have. They're going to the Big Dance. The only real question is whether the have frittered away the No. 1 seed that many pundits presumed would be theirs.
After their success in the conference tournament, the third-seeded Beavers are also expected to get NCAA bid, the first for OSU since the 1995-96 season. The Beavers slowed down the high scoring and vastly improved Washington State Cougars, 70-60, in the late game on Saturday. The Cougars could not get back-to-back upsets after stunning No. 2 seed California, the second of the PAC-12's perennial powerhouses, in Friday’s quarterfinals.
USC and Oregon State split during the regular season. Both teams will be grappling with fatigue with USC playing its fourth game in as many days, OSU its third in a row. After the semifinal results, a low-scoring affair by two defense-minded teams is to be expected.
“They’ve defended us very well both games we’ve played against them,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. “We defended them well the second game that we played…. It’s not going to be easy to find shots. It’s going to come down to great offensive execution. I’m anticipating both teams dialed in on the defensive end, no question.”
Semifinal 1 (Game Nine): (5) USC 72, (1) Stanford 68
Stanford, the 10-time league tournament champion and measuring stick for PAC-12 excellence, had its work cut out for it against USC, a team attempting to get back to the NCAA tournament after an eight-year absence and rekindle some of the greatness of years past under alumna and first-year coach Cynthia Cooper.
USC, on the NCAA bubble coming into the tournament, needed a top-notch effort to improve its resume. A win over the Cardinal, would be the signature win the Trojans needed after getting past No. 4 seed Arizona State on Friday.
Stanford should have been on red alert coming into Saturday's game. USC is a rapidly improving team that has exceeded all expectations this season. In the first of two regular-season meetings between these two teams, in Palo Alto, Stanford dispatched the Women of Troy in an 86-59 rout. In the rematch in Los Angeles, USC gave the Cardinal all the could handle, running up a 19-point second-half. And couldn't close it out, instead letting up on the gas and allowing Stanford to claw its way back to a 64-59 victory in the seventh-largest comeback in NCAA history thanks to a stellar performance by Stanford’s All-American power forward Chiney Ogwumike on the scoreboard, on the backboards and in the mental game as the leader of her young teammates.
On Saturday night, the Trojans made it clear early they were going to attack the basket, be tough and physical on defense, and throw everything they could within the rules at Ogwumike. USC got a big-time effort, both offensively and defensively, from junior forward Alexyz Vaioletama who often matched up with Ogwumike while piling up 19 points and 15 rebounds of her own.
During timeouts Cooper repeatedly implored all her players to be aggressive, block out the Cardinal and keep them off the offensive glass.
Although Ogwumike scored 30 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, including nine off the offensive glass, the message got through and nothing came easy for one of the best players in the country. The Trojans forced her to turn the ball over several times and took a charge on her to erase a basket as they built a 10-point lead in the second half.
“I guarantee you she hasn’t worked that hard all year long to get those numbers,” Cooper said.
Despite trailing 50-40 with 10:50 to play, as expected Stanford would not go quietly. The Cardinal went on a 20-7 run, taking a 60-57 lead on a pair of free throws by freshman guard Lili Thompson.
But that’s when USC senior Cassie Harberts who had scored only three points until that point, got the breakthrough she had been working and waiting for all night. Harberts scored and was fouled inside the paint and converted a three-point play to tie it up at 60. She scored seven more unanswered points in her own and the Trojans’ 10-point run that gave them a 67-60 lead with 1:22 to go.
As with the Stanford comeback they allowed at home in late February, closing out games has been a challenge for the Trojans this season, and missed free throws in the final minute including a couple missed front-ends of one-and-ones, gave Stanford an opening to come back from the seven-point deficit.
But as it had all night, the Trojans’ defense made up for the offensive struggles, forcing Stanford to draw fouls to score points and take tough shots including an off-balance, desperation 3-pointer by Ogwumike that harmlessly bounced off the back of the rim with one second left.
While a strategy of playing physical against Ogwumike is not unusual, another key for USC was that her teammates only made 12-of-48 shots. The Cardinal shot a season-worst 31.9 percent from the field for the game, a tribute to USC’s defense, but also something they can’t let happen again if they are to advance deep in the NCAAs.
“I was proud of our defensive effort (USC only shot 39.1 percent from the field), but I think offensively we need to execute better and play with a sense of urgency,” Ogwumike said. “I think we played hard, but we need to take that to another level.”
Also paced by three treys each by guard Ariya Crook and Vaioletama, the Trojans made eight 3-pointers to Stanford’s four, and shot 50 percent from long distance to the Cardinal’s 28.6 percent. Crook nailed back-to-back 3-pointers, and scored eight straight points to erase a six-point Cardinal lead and tie the game at 32 at halftime.
Stanford only held a slight edge on the boards 51-46, and 18-14 on the offensive glass.
Cooper,who high-fived the USC fans and band after the game, said she hoped the NCAA would put the Trojans in the tournament at this point no matter what happens Sunday night.
Of course, the school’s first Pac-12 Tournament title and an automatic bid would further demonstrate the Trojans' ability to finish games and cement them as an opponent on a hot streak that no one wants to face in the first round of the NCAAs two weeks from now.
Semifinal 2 (Game Ten): (3) Oregon State 70, (7) Washington State 60
Oregon State (22-9) rode another strong defensive effort and well-balanced offensive attack to a win over the Cougars in the nightcap Saturday.
Thanks to early-round upsets of No. 2 seed California and No. 6 seed Washington, the Beavers' road to the title game featured double-digit wins over the seventh-seeded Cougars and 11th seeded Utah.
Oregon State raced out to a 33-20 halftime lead and withstood a late Cougar rally, thanks to 20 points from freshman guard Sydney Wiese and 16 points from junior guard Ali Gibson. Center Ruth Hamblin added 11 points, nine rebounds. The 6-6 sophomore also swatted away seven shots.
The Beavers’ defense held the Cougars to 32.5 percent field goal shooting, stopping the highest scoring offense to date in the tournament. The 60 points scored by the Cougars was 39 points less than the 99 points they averaged against Oregon and California.
After the game, Rueck emphasized that the Beavers’ opponents’ field goal percentage is the second-lowest in the conference trailing Stanford’s by a mere one-thousandth of a point.
Despite the loss, the Cougars (17-16), will have their first .500 or better season since 1995-96 in coach June Daugherty’s seventh season in Pullman.
While it was a good day to be indoors as the Seattle rains poured outside, the players could not completely escape the wet Northwest. In fact, one could say accurately that on Saturday, it rained on Stanford's parade.
Prior to the USC-Stanford game, Key Arena staff noticed water droplets hitting the floor near the home bench from an apparent leak in the building’s roof. While it could not be repaired before or during the games, PAC-12 officials and the game officials said in a statement it not enough a safety hazard to halt play although constant monitoring would take place.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said a drop of water fell on her during a timeout in the huddle, but she said arena staff “were right on top of it,” and it “was not an issue at all. They had someone right there that was wiping it up.”