2014 PAC-12 Tournament Championship Wrap: USC presses past Oregon State to claim first PAC-12 Tournament title
SEATTLE — When Cynthia Cooper took the reins as head coach of the USC women’s basketball program last summer she told her players: "I’m not going to allow you to underachieve."
The Trojans capped a magical run through the PAC-12 Tournament this week at Key Arena with a 71-62 win over Oregon State Sunday night in the title game.
It’s the Trojan women’s first conference tournament title and automatic bid ever, as well as their first NCAA appearance in eight years, and it came after winning four games in four days.
“We don’t have to wait,” Cooper said. “We know that we’ve solidified a ticket to the dance in March.”
Cooper won two national titles as a player at USC, but she wanted her charges to be able to make their own mark.
“Since day one she had been saying forget about the history and what happened when she played. We just have to bring our own identity,” said guard Kiki Alofaituli who scored 15 points and made all five of her free throws in the title game.
The Trojans shook off a shaky first half, came out fired up in the second half and closed out the win in impressive fashion, making 13-of-15 of their free throws in the second half.
The Trojans (22-12) arrived in Seattle with an 18-12 record, and needed to spiff up their resume quite a bit to get in the NCAAs, but under Cooper they continued to persevere, taking down favored Arizona State and PAC-12 behemoth Stanford en route.
They had to rally again on Sunday after trailing Oregon State by 10 points in the first half. USC came out flat against the third-seeded Beavers (23-10) following the emotional win over fourth-ranked Stanford the previous night in the semifinals.
The Beavers, who entered the title game on an 11-game winning streak (all of those wins by double-digits), dominated the first half behind 12 points from freshman scoring machine Sydney Wiese. Despite a late USC run, the Beavers led 36-29 at the intermission. OSU out-rebounded the Trojans 21-11, dominating paint points 20-8 and holding them to 33.3-percent field-goal shooting in the opening. The Trojans 3-point shooting was about the only thing that kept the lead from ballooning to double-digits.
But Cooper had an answer: Start the second half with a full-court press.
If the players’ legs were tired after four back-to-back games, they didn’t show it, mirroring the energy of their coach, and giving the Beavers all they could handle. The Trojans forced seven second-half turnovers as the press shifted the momentum in their favor.
“They punched us in the face to start the second half and gained momentum and it was hard to get it back,” OSU coach Scott Rueck said.
USC started the half by scoring nine unanswered points, taking the lead on a put-back by Alofaituli with 17:28 left to play and never trailing again. OSU tied it up three times thereafter, but were never able to recapture the lead. After a Cassie Harberts jumper at the 15:50 put the lead in Trojan hands for the final time (42-40), USC began to pull away, stretching the margin to its 12-point max (60-48) with 7:21 left after a 12-2 run.
The Beavers closed it to 65-60 with 1:47 left on a shot by forward Deven Hunter who finished with a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds.
But Harberts came up with a needed basket as she had against Stanford, driving to the hoop and scoring with 1:17 left to stretch the lead to 67-60.
Wiese scored with under minute to cut it five points again, but the Trojans’ Brianna Barrett and Ariya Crook made all four of their free throws in the last 21 seconds and the celebration began.
The final featured closely matched teams who split the season series, with each team winning on its home court. Both got to the title game by emphasizing defense.
The Beavers' 11-game winning streak came to an end after they cooled off from the field in the second half thanks in big part to the Trojans' pressure. USC also took care of the basketball, turning it over just six times, a season low.
The win was sweet for the senior Harberts who will play in her first NCAA tournament in two weeks.
“This time we can sit and be proud of what we accomplished, and we’ve rightfully earned a spot in the NCAA tournament,” Harberts said.
Cooper said she wanted to bring passion back to USC women’s hoops when she took the job.
Right now, those words ring true.
“We earned this championship—in doing that, we earned respect,” Cooper said.
NCAA Tournament Selection Fall-out
•Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said despite the Cardinal’s early exit in Seattle, she’s not going to worry about seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Stanford is going to its 27th consecutive NCAA Tournament this season. Her team is healthy and has two weeks of practice to work on its offense, which has struggled the last month.
“If something happened to one of your key players, that is the worst thing,” she said. “We’re going to worry about getting our team really running (our) offense much better, working harder defensively, having people understand what shots we want them to take…We can do a lot of work in two weeks and improve a lot in two weeks.”
•California (21-9) despite its loss to Washington State in the quarterfinals, finished second in the league at 13-5 and is expected to make the tournament as well, a year after a Final Four appearance.
•Despite losing to USC in the conference final, Oregon State, at 23-10, figures to make its first tournament in 18 years.
“I think this team certainly deserves it,” coach Scott Rueck said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t be in the tournament. I don’t see that argument.”
•Arizona State’s loss to USC in the quarterfinals means at 22-9 it remains on the bubble. Three of the Sun Devils' nine losses came to nationally ranked Stanford (two times) and Cal (once). Two more came to Oregon State in the regular-season finale, and to USC in Saturday's semifinal, and ASU beat those teams once each in regular-season play. The stock of both OSU and USC has risen with their tournament performances, giving the wins more weight and the losses less sting. The Sun Devils also own quality wins over North Carolina, Syracuse and Cal. Their resume is solid, but with USC taking the automatic; Stanford, Cal and Oregon State all high likely at-large invitees; and Washington State also on the bubble, the question is whether the Selection Committee is likely to extend a fourth or fifth at-large bid to a PAC-12 team.
Final tournament notes
•The All-Tournament team as voted by the media was led by Most Outstanding Player, Ariya Crook of USC. Also honored: Lia Galdeira of Washington State, Ruth Hamblin of Oregon State, Cassie Harberts of USC, Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford and Sydney Wiese of Oregon State.
•No fifth seed had ever won the Pac-12 Women’s Tournament until USC did so Sunday. The Trojans' best previous result was a second-place finish in 2009.
•The Trojans set tournament records for field goals made (96) and rebounds (149).
•Ogwumike tied the PAC-12’s all-time career scoring record (2,629 points) with her 30 points against USC Saturday night.
•Washington State’s Galdeira set the all-time single-tournament record for points scored with 75 after a 16-point effort against Oregon State, breaking the previous record of 71 held jointly by Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Nicole Powell.