With the exception of Stanford, the #1 seed and alive in the Spokane region, the Pac-12 teams have been wiped out of the NCAA tournament. With the exception of Utah, they were all knocked out by lower-seeded opponents.
If you’re backing the Pac, you’re hoping for Stanford to hold off the rest of the world in the remaining field of 16, and for UCLA or Oregon State to win the WNIT. Otherwise, our stance that the Pac is the toughest league in the NCAA is on shaky ground.
The defending champion Cardinal look like a fair bet to survive the regional. The Hull twins found additional incentive in the possibility of playing the rounds of 16 and 8 in their hometown, and Lexie had a career game in round two vs. Kansas. Hull scored a career-best 36 points, and added 6 rebounds, 6 steals, and 3 assists in Stanford’s 91-65 win at Stanford. Her Hollinger GameScore of 35.2 is the highest I’ve crunched yet this season.
Stanford led merely by two at half, 33-31, and Coach Tara VanDerveer said the outcome was truly in doubt, until Hull poured in 25 points in the third and fourth quarters. “(The game) came down to ‘we had Lexie Hull, and they didn’t,” she said.
That was the night before Arizona was knocked out by North Carolina, and after Texas eliminated Utah 78-56 on the Longhorns’ home floor (it’s high time the first two rounds be conducted on neutral floors). “That was a tough loss for Utah,” said VanDerveer, “but how great for their freshmen and sophomores to play in this tournament for the first time. I’m very happy for what (Utah coach Lynne Roberts) has done with that team.”
Stanford takes on AP #13 Maryland, the #4 seed in the Spokane region, tonight. The rules against personal electronic devices at chess tournaments get more and more stringent. These days, you’re required to leave your phone powered off beside your board (these restrictions don’t have much effect on me; I work in the office downstairs from the chess club, so my work computer is always a few steps away, enabling me to cheat at chess or watch basketball at will).
A bad Saturday for the Pacific-12 at the NCAA tournament Sunday. Oregon and Washington State both lost in upsets, during which I couldn't keep awake for being out and about all Friday.
Only Arizona survived, 72-67 over UNLV. It was the first game in which I really thought they missed Aari McDonald. McDonald would've given them more space there, McDonald would've won the race to that ball, McDonald would've been their shooter, and so on. Sure, as long as you're picking the spots, you can do this for any team missing any great player, but this was the first time this season I found myself doing so for Arizona and Aari McDonald.
That game was within five points in both directions for three quarters (UNLV led by 7 for two possessions in the 2nd; Arizona led by 6 for one possession in the 3rd), but as ESPN talking head Coach Dan Hughes said, Arizona's ball pressure eventually wears opponents out.
Tied at 56-56 with 5:34 rema ining, went on an 11-0 run. Senior guard Shaina Pellington made two steals during the run, and led all scorers with 30 points. Four steals and four assists opposite zero turnovers. A 25.6 Hollinger GameScore, the highest I've crunched this year.
Cate Reese played for the first time in three weeks, but that shoulder is obviously nagging her. Especially at the free throw line, when it's Cate Reese alone with her separated shoulder.
The trouble with Oregon getting knocked out of the Wichita region and Washington State from the Bridgeport region is that an all-Pac-12 round of four is ruled out, while Arizona is the only Pac-12 team left on that side of the bracket, while Stanford and Utah are on a collision course in the other.
That is, assuming Stanford beats two opponents, starting with #8 Kansas tonight, while Utah does the same (a more difficult task: #2 seed Texas, then probably #3 LSU).
Utah had no difficulty in eliminating Arkansas Friday. It was 10-0 at the start, and Arkansas never threatened. The Utes will deal with their first adversity today against Texas -- #6 in the Associated Press poll, and in their own building. Though it's possible the freshmen Johnson, Kneepkens, and Vieira won't feel a thing. (It's 44-30 at half.)
The first day of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was a very long day. Any day in which I watch four games is taxing, but I went Friday with no sleep (I’ve been nervous and edgy since Selection Sunday; sleeping Thursday night, ha), and watched in three locations. 10:30 a.m. at home for Colorado-Creighton, drove to Stanford to watch Utah-Arkansas in the media workroom at 2:30, then hopped over to Maples for Kansas-Georgia Tech at 4:30 and Stanford-Montana State at 7 (I tried to sleep during the second half of the Stanford game, but my seat is in front of their obnoxious student section).
Got home and crashed, woke an hour ago. Still tired, so I’ll skip the formality of writing anything that resembles news.
#10 Creighton 84 #7 Colorado 74 (Greensboro)
I picked 15 of 16 in the women’s bracket; the only loser was picking Colorado over Creighton.
It sometimes seems to me that basketball coaches are blowing smoke at media when they say: “We’ll do what we do, and they’ll do what they do”, but that’s what happened.
Creighton shot the snot out of the ball to begin the second half (4-of-6 3FG), and made all their free throws at the end (12-of-12).
Colorado’s defense was not up to its usual standard. I’ve been itching to say for the last two months that “Kindyll Wetta never looked like a freshman this season”, but she did Friday. The play that killed the Buffaloes was with 1:36 left in the game, when Creighton led 72-68. Wetta made a steal in the backcourt, broke to the Colorado basket where she missed the contested layup, then committed an upgraded-to-intentional-foul-after-review to give Creighton two free throws plus possession. A six-point swing in the last 90 seconds of an elimination game.
The Blue Jays made 8-of-8 free throws in the final 1:28. There’s no one on that team to target with an intentional foul.
#7 Utah 92 #10 Arkansas 69 (Spokane)
If bookmakers were taking action on this game, I thought over-150 would’ve been an excellent wager, though I didn’t think it would happen by 90 points on one side, 60 on the other.
While winning their first NCAA tournament game since 2009, the Utes broke, tied, or approached all manner of school records during NCAA play. 92 points and 15 treys are new team records. I suggested that you to pay attention to senior Dru Gylten; her 11 assists is a new record. Sophomore forward Kelsey Rees made her first double of the season with 11 and 10, and zero fouls. The player of the game was sophomore forward Kennady McQueen: 20 points (6-of-9 3FG plus 2-of-2 FT), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal in 21 minutes.
In the aforementioned bracket, I’ve got Utah winning the national championship, beating #2 Texas, #3 LSU, #1 Stanford, #2 Connecticut, and #1 South Carolina. Seriously, why not. I said Utah is scratching the surface of what they can do; who can say they won’t beat five teams in the Associated Press top 10.
#1 Stanford 78 #16 Montana St. 37
At which I saw three things I’ve never seen before:
Montana St. didn’t score in the first quarter; it was the first such shutout Stanford has ever pitched.
Hannah Jump missed three consecutive 3-point attempts. She made two, missed three, hit two, and the universe was back in order. Jump finished 5-of-11, the game’s high scorer with 15 points.
Stanford’s forecourt tag team of sophomore Cameron Brink and junior Fran Belibi scored 23 points, got 22 rebounds, blocked 6 shots. The play that the nation will see on ESPN SportsCenter and social media outlets was Belibi’s steal-breakaway-dunk.
Maples Pavilion was half-full, yet I’ve never heard so much noise in that place, while the Stanford bench was jumping. Put me in the humbug camp that sees a dunk as no better than a layup, but the Belibi dunk is viral content, and women’s basketball needs all the viral content it can muster.
Stanford’s next opponent is #8 Kansas, who beat #9 Georgia Tech 77-58. The Jayhawks played aggressive defense, while the Yellowjackets did not.
Oregon Pac-12 at-large NET: 12 Neutral floors: 2-3 Best win: 19 Arizona Worst loss: 53 Oregon St. What I know: I said the Ducks have looked vulnerable when they don’t play together. Coach Graves said the team has been up and down, so I reckon we’re in some agreement. They’re big and strong, but they look play with finesse; paradoxically, opponents can disrupt the Ducks by beating them up. The Ducks don’t have a deep bench; I couldn’t name their #7.
Pay attention to: Junior forward Sedona Prince. Prince is getting headlines this week because it was her reporting that broke last year’s news about the inequity of the conditions between men’s and women’s teams. It’s an unusual spotlight she’s under.
Belmont Ohio Valley tournament NET: 50 Neutral floors: 2-0 Best win: 24 Ole Miss Worst loss: 182 Austin Peay What I know: They mussed my bracket last year by beating 5-seed Gonzaga in the first round. Arkansas, Utah’s first-round opponent this year, crushed the Bruins while taking good care of the ball.
#7 Colorado vs. #10 Creighton (Greensboro)
Colorado Pac-12 at large NET: 29 Neutral floors: 4-2 Best win: 19 Arizona Worst loss: 53 Oregon St. What I know: Colorado is one of those odd teams that gets better with early substitutions, junior forward Quay Miller is sixth man of the year, while freshman guard Kindyll Miller made the all-defense team. Oregon and Colorado have a lot in common: best wins were vs. Arizona; worst losses vs. Oregon St.; both teams were up and down (Colorado won a bunch, lost some, resumed winning). At conference tournament time, I labeled the Buffaloes “the team no one wanted to play”, and they got as far as Stanford (where the irresistable force met the immovable object). I think Colorado could beat almost anyone, but their first opponent and the likely-next opponent are among the highest-scoring in the land.
Pay attention to: Kindyll Wetta. She usually seems to be in the right place, and she makes fewer mistakes than the average freshman.
Creighton Big East at large NET: 32 Neutral floors: 0-1 Best win: 47 Arizona St. Worst loss: 91 Seton Hall What I know: The Blue Jays were 2nd in the Big East standings almost all the way, but lost to DePaul on senior night. Then they lost to Seton Hall in the first round of the tournament (the superstition about heavy odds against beating the same team three times was in effect). Creighton is capable of huge offense, but Colorado is equally capable on defense.
#1 Stanford vs. #16 Montana St. (Spokane)
Stanford Pac-12 season and tournament NET: 3 Neutral floors: 5-1 Best win: 14 Maryland Worst loss: 40 South Florida What I know: They’re Stanford, winners of 20 in a row. Last year, they had a store of magic pixie dust to help them win the national championship; this year, they look determined to win most convincingly, without supernatural assistance. Curse the selection committee for putting them in the same region as Utah; naturally, I was hoping for that as the national final rather than the round of eight.
Pay attention to: Sophomore forward Cameron Brink. The player of the year voting might be one of those cases where two teammates (Brink and Haley Jones) steal votes from each other, while South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston wins it. Brink sort of reminds me of Kareem; like a spindly Gulliver stepping around Lilliputians before laying hers up or swatting theirs away. The difference is that Kareem kept his emotions well hidden, whereas Brink lets it fly. I didn’t think Stanford could find a forward I like more than Jayne Appel or Brooke Smith.
Montana St. Big Sky tournament NET: 164 Neutral floors: 2-1 Best win: 141 Montana Worst loss: 229 Weber St. What I know: One of the reasons to be glad about Stanford winning last year was that it buries 1998’s loss as #1 to #16 Harvard deeper in the past, and the thought of such happening again shan’t cross anyone’s mind. In junior guard Darian White, the Bobcats have a first-team Big Sky all-conference player who shared the defensive player of the year award. Montana St. also has a senior forward named Kola Bad Bear, and I applaud everyone in her family tree who didn’t think to change their name.
#7 Utah vs. #10 Arkansas (Spokane)
Utah Pac-12 at large NET: 27 Neutral floors: 4-2 Best win: 12 Oregon Worst loss: 74 Southern California What I know: For improving by 15 wins over last year, reaching the conference tournament final for the first time, and returning to the NCAA tournament after more than 10 years, Utah might’ve said ‘We’re just happy to be here’, but in fact, the Utes are only now finding out what they can do. In November, I watched them play fast enough to drop 211 points on 291 Lipscomb and 246 Xavier. They’ve learned from a tournament record 29-point quarter against 58 Washington State that they can do it against other NCAA tourney teams.
Pay attention to: Senior guard Dru Gylten. Unselfish to a fault. In Utah’s three wins during the Pac-12 tournament, she scored 0, 0, and 3 points. Those three were vital to make up a 10-point deficit vs. Oregon; otherwise I think 0 0 0 (when chessplayers see 0 0 0, they reflexively think “castled queenside”) would’ve suited her. Utah coach Roberts told me when Gylten came in as a freshman that she’d become my favorite player. Sum Gylten’s leadership, character, and temperament — not found in the boxscore — with uncanny court vision plus passing ability, and you get a player whose career I do not wish to see end 16 hours from now.
Arkansas Southeast Conference at large NET: 30 Neutral floors: 2-1 Best win: 21 LSU Worst loss: 77 Vanderbilt
Arkansas is in their second straight NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks are plenty responsible for putting Missouri (the only team to beat South Carolina) in the WNIT, beating the Tigers three times (overtime in round one of the SEC tournament). Like Utah, Arkansas placed three representatives on the postseason honor rolls, including the freshman of the year. Like Utah, Arkansas led their conference in scoring. Arkansas’ halfcourt is five-out, zero-in while Utah is four-out, one-in. The only five-out system to which I can compare Arkansas is UC Davis in the Big West; the Razorbacks run longer pass routes, if that makes sense.
This could be the highest-scoring game of the first round, and it’s important as far as each conference’s bragging rights go. The Pac=12 sent six teams, the SEC sent eight. Until the games are played, the ACC is winning that contest, with eight teams in, two of which are #1 seeds.
Oregon State overcame a nearly-flawless start by the visiting Long Beach State 49ers, and won 70-59 in a first-round WNIT game.
The 49ers did not commit a turnover for the first 15:35 of the game, while sophomore guard Kianna Hamilton-Fisher shot 4-of-4 3-point field goals in the first quarter. Hamilton-Fisher had her best game of the season, making highs in points, rebounds, and steals. LBSU led 26-16 after one.
Long Beach St. led by as many as 15 in the first quarter. Oregon St. sophomore forward Kennedy Brown entered with 4:49 remaining, and sparked their comeback with 6 points, 7 rebounds, one block and one steal. At halftime, the LBSU lead was cut to 35-30. Brown finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, her first double of the season.
The lead changed hands five times in the third quarter, and the score was tied at 45-45 at 2:47. The Beavers scored 15 of the game’s next 18 points, holding throughout the fourth.
Oregon St. was the first Pac-12 team to play in either national tournament. UCLA begins WNIT play against UC Irvine Friday, while Stanford, Colorado, and Utah get started in the NCAA tournament.
USA Today named the Pacific-12 one of the losers on Selection Sunday for sending merely six teams to the NCAA tournament, only one of which seeded higher than #4. The Pac-12’s bubble teams — UCLA and Oregon State — play today in the WNIT.
UCLA vs. UC Irvine
UC Irvine Big West automatic bid NET: 136 Neutral floors: 3-1 Best win: 119 Illinois St. Worst loss: 195 Grand Canyon
The Anteaters received an automatic bid as the highest-placing Big West team (that isn’t the tournament champion Hawaii). My friend Justin Wilson was an assistant coach at Pacific when I started loitering there, and most recently at UC Irvine. Coach Wilson is gone, so there goes my last link to UCI. I wrote to Cal Poly coach Mimnaugh a few weeks ago, then learned the Mustangs were 3-22, signaling the right time for Mimnaugh to retire after 25 years in paradise (Seriously, San Luis Obispo is one of the most pleasant places I’ve ever visited. It’s a little college town hidden in the valley between two mountains, and it’s kept some bohemian character despite the modernization of its downtown.).
The only friends I have left in the Big West are on the coaching staff at UC Davis, which feels odd. Years ago, while the Big West preseason media poll was circulating, one of my coaching friends asked her media relations fellow if I received a ballot. “He knows more about this conference than anybody,” she said, and that might’ve been true… 13 or 14 years ago.
UCLA Pac-12 automatic bid NET: 41 Neutral floors: 2-4 Best win: 19 Arizona Worst loss: 102 Kent State
It was a season of what-could-have-been for the Bruins, who lost around 100 player games to injury and illness (the total was 70 at the end of November, so I reckon 100 is a conservative estimate), and had to cancel one game for not having five healthy bodies. UCLA has eight seniors or graduate students on their roster, an exceptional amount of experience. During the Pac-12 championship tournament, Coach Close was talking about finally getting to coach her team recently, rather than struggle to keep the ship afloat.
Pay attention to: Forward Ilmar’l Thomas.
Two doubles in February. Big, graceful and smart (among forwards, 2nd in the conference in assist-to-turnover rate). When I saw Thomas with Sacred Heart Cathedral HS, I said ‘wow, can we get her’, to which Coach replied she’s already committed to Cincinnati. Cincinnati?! She looked like a player who could’ve gone wherever she liked, and she opted for Cincinnati. The story goes that she decided as an upperclassman that she wanted to compete with the strongest competitors, which brought her back to California. Thank goodness for that.
Oregon State vs. Long Beach State
Long Beach State Big West at large NET: 130 Neutral floors: 2-1 Best win: 61 Rhode Island Worst loss: 259 Cal State Northridge
Like I said, I’ve become a stranger to the Big West (LBSU was one of my favorite stops, while their coach was a record-setting guard for UCLA; and their gym is architectured, strikingly, as a pyramid, ). I don’t know anything about this Long Beach St. team. They lost at Oregon in December while Oregon was without Nyara Sabally.
Oregon State NET: 53 Neutral floors: 3-3 Best win: 12 Oregon Worst loss: 47 Arizona St.
The Beavers lost 13 games this season, and 12 of those losses were to teams in the NCAA tournament. Oregon St. lost three of four at the end, and that was while seven teams were jockeying for 3rd and 4th places, and that sweet first-round bye. The Pac-12 is brutal. Say you’ve got a 20-game in-conference schedule, with four against last season’s national finalists. No one will hate you for losing those, but to reach .500, you’ve gotta go 8-4. The Beavers will be as tough as usual next year; four starters (one freshman on the all-conference first team) return.
Pay attention to: Forward Jelena Mitrovic.
I wrote one year ago: My favorite basketball players are oddballs, the top-of-the-circle distributing post players. Conventionally, the big people are placed nearest the basket because they’re closest to the goal vertically. But in my view, if you’ve got a tall person who can pass the ball, put them near the middle of the court where they can see everyone else moving.
The best example of this type was ill-fated 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school because every college in the nation wanted him. Ralph’s problem was that in high school, he was still encouraged to play like a growing boy, but in college and the NBA, they wanted him to play like a guy who’s 7-foot-4. Someone hit the 88-inch nail on the head when he said: “Ralph is a 6-foot-2 guard in a 7-foot-4 post player’s body”.
These days there are two such players in the region (U San Francisco has one in forward Lucija Kostic). Oregon State has a girl who’s 6-foot-9, and her greatest skill is passing: Jelena Mitrovic.
I wrote that a year ago, and what puzzles me now is that I saw Mitrovic four or five times this season, and not once did she remind me why I thought so highly of her passing ability.
Stanford beat Utah 73-48 in the championship game of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament Sunday.
Utah tied the game 32-32 in the first minute of the third quarter. Then the defending tournament and national champions outscored the first-time finalists 41-16 the rest of the way, shooting 50% to Utah’s 21%.
It was Stanford’s 15th Pac-10 or Pac-12 tournament championship since the event’s inception in 2002. Utah, which joined the conference in 2011, had never gone as far as the semifinal before.
Stanford senior Haley Jones led the Cardinal with 19 points and 6 rebounds, and was named most valuable player of the tournament. Limited by foul trouble, sophomore Cameron Brink scored 16, and blocked a game-high four shots Brink was also selected for the all-tournament team.
Utah freshmen Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson were also named to the all-tournament team, though were held to a combined 2-for-15 shooting in the championship game.
Kneepkens’ 24 points scored against Oregon was the best individual total during the tournament, while the 29 the Utes scored in the first quarter against Washington St. in the quarterfinal was an all-time tournament high.
Utah demonstrated the same balanced production in the tournament that they did during conference play. None of the Utes was among the top 10 in scoring average in the tournament; four averaged between 10 and 12 points in the season. None was among the top 10 in rebounding; four averaged between 4 and 5 in season.
Stanford’s average sccoring differential was +21 in their three games; during regular conference play, it was +16. The Cardinal made 23-of-50 three-point attempts.
Number-one seed Stanford extended its winning streak against other Pac-12 teams to 35 games. #6 Utah was the lowest seed ever to reach the final, and the second #6 to do so.
Utah beat Washington St. Friday to reach their first semifinal. Also, if there any doubt that they’d earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament, that win might have snuffed it.
I was very happy, but not much more than usual following a win in an important game. I expected them to beat WSU, and the reord-setting 29-point first quarter (and holding on) validated that notion.
The semifinal win over Oregon — whom Utah had not beaten yet — was convincing, emphatic, and most unexpected. The championship game loss to Stanford does not diminish Utah’s accomplishments at all; mostly, it affirmed Stanford’s business-like march to a second title.
I don’t know how to feel. If I were still in the business of writing women’s college basketball as a means of maintaining journalistic chops, I’d be glad for the Utes, but I’ve been emotionally invested in Coach Roberts’ teams for a long time now.
I have a couple of not-quite-analogous experiences. The 2010 San Francisco Giants — with National League rookie of the year Buster Posey — won their first World Series since moving west from the Polo Grounds, and I actually felt a little dead.
Text messages came in to tell me not to celebrate too hard, while I lie in bed thinking “I’ve waited my whole life for this. Why aren’t I happy?”.
Evidently, there’s some degree of clinical depression that doesn’t send you as a sobbing mess to the hospital, but merely makes life very dull (and I stop writing, which I’ve begun to recognize as the sign of “not OK”).
So I can’t use that as an analogous situation, though I do recognize dozens of fans, supporters, and well-wishers for Utah who weren’t visible before. During the five years of the Giants’ three championships, I couldn’t go outside without seeing someone wearing Giants gear with the tags still attached.
People say “Let people enjoy things the way they want to enjoy them” and “Not everyone’s fandom is akin to yours”. I’ve met people in NBA gear over the years whose colors changed with the standings. Perhaps they are very kind with animals and children.
Then there were the 2010 Pacific Tigers, who — like Utah — brought in three impact freshmen (one of whom works as Utah’s operations director today). But there’s no comparison here, either, because that Pacific trio headed a complete makeover, while Utah’s three joined a promising group already in place.
In the chess world, the youngest players improve incredibly fast, and they play in a very different manner than old-timers. Old folks who were once young guns themselves grow timid and cautious over the years, because they’ve navigated so many chessboard minefields. The kids get after it like wondrous Diana deflecting bullets in the DC Comics movie.
The Utah freshmen — Kneepkens and Johnson — don’t recognize danger while they’re competing with some of the best defensive teams in the country. Roberts said at one post-game press session: “They’re fearless, and when you combine talent with fearlessness, it’s…”, and she paused while a word like ‘hazardous’, ‘volatile’, or ‘dangerous’ hung in the air.
They, plus the lightning-fast Vieira, and the sophomore forwards Peyton McFarland and Kelsey Rees — who wobbled some last year, but grown markedly — hint at a better future (which is saying a lot, ahead of Selection Sunday in two days).
In sum, I’m on unfamiliar ground as much as they are. The best I can do is continue the job I gave myself: pay attention.
Sixth-seeded Utah beat #2 seed Oregon 80-73 in a Pac-12 championship tournament semifinal Friday. Sunday’s match with #1 seed Stanford will be the first trip to the final for Utah. At #6, the Utes are the lowest seed ever to reach the final, and only the second #6 to do so.
Oregon led 37-32 at half and 40-35 at 8:19 in third, but Utah went on a 16-1 run in 5:05, to lead 51-41 at 3:14. Four different Utes made a three-pointer during the run, three of which were assisted. Down 10 to begin the 4th, Oregon outscored Utah 21-10 to regain the lead 66-65 with 3:56 remaining. Then Oregon’s all-conference forward Nyara Sabally was disqualified, drawing her fifth foul as Utah’s Kennady McQueen attempted a three-pointer. Oregon coach Kelly Graves disagreed severely enough to be assessed a technical foul.
Sophomore McQueen shot five free throws (three for the fouled 3-point try, two for the technical foul), making four. Utah led 69-66, and pulled away. McQueen finished with her first double, 13 points with 11 rebounds plus two assists.
Freshman of the year Gianna Kneepkens scored a game-high 24, adding seven rebounds and five assists.
I’ve been waiting 15 years to write this. This could be the end.
In Dec. 2006, I was covering the West Coast Conference, when a very good San Diego team visited Pacific, coinciding with a kids’ chess tournament on the Pacific campus.
Cool, I thought, I can work at the chess tournament, watch San Diego blast the home team, and never have to see Stockton again. But I sensed a story happening, with Pacific’s first-year head coach, and their freshman point guard.
So I stuck around in Stockton, regularly making the 75-minute drive. Looking back, I was insane for thinking something great might happen that first year. Then that guard left the team, but I stayed anyway, and Pacific coach Roberts eventually built a Tiger team that won the Big West Conference regular season in 2013. I thought the story might’ve ended with that group, but they peaked too soon, losing in the tournament quarterfinals.
That was nine years ago. Roberts moved to take the Utah job in an elite conference; the captain of that 27-win Pacific team is her operations director. For the past five years, Roberts has urged me to visit Utah, because guard Dru Gylten would become my favorite player.
In Gylten’s fifth year, I made the trip to Salt Lake last November, partly because the Utah state championship was conducted in the university’s engineering building. When Roberts asked me during Utah’s trip to the Bay Area for the Stanford/Cal games, she asked me what I thought, and I told her that I love this team.
These Utes seem to genuinely like other, and on the floor, they share the ball and shoot the hell out of it. And here they are making history, the first Utah team to run as far as the tournament semifinal got one round further than that (while they’re bound for the NCAA tournament, where I hoped I’d follow the 2013 Pacific team). They’re a great story, a great end to the one I started writing in 2006.
And the team isn’t done yet. What about *tomorrow*? Can Utah beat Stanford in the championship game?
I don’t think anyone can beat Stanford. The Cardinal are the defending national champion, and they have improved. On the other hand, if Utah has an especially good day shooting threes, while Cameron Brink and Fran Belibi are limited by foul trouble, who can say.
The mountain interlopers — Colorado, who joined the Pacific-12 following 30 years in the Big 8 and Big 12; and Utah, who joined after 20 years in the Western Athletic and Mountain West — have crashed the semifinals of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament (traditionalists objected to the addition of the Arizona teams to the Pac-8, and chafed further at further expansion into the Rockies).
It’s the deepest run for both teams during the tenures of CU coach JR Payne and UU coach Lynne Roberts. Both coaches moved up from the mid-major West Coast Conference — Payne at Santa Clara, Roberts at Pacific — where I had seats at both press tables, which neither of them remembers.
I’ve said a few times that Colorado is the “team that no one wanted to play”, the designation for the team that hit their stride just in time for the post-season.
The Buffaloes were the last undefeated team in the nation at 14-0, but were then reminded that they’re in the Pac-12. Losses to Stanford bookended a 3-7 stretch that left them at 5-7.
Then the Buffs righted the ship, sweeping the SoCal teams by identical 67-54 scores, then finding the resolve to beat Oregon 86-83 in two overtimes Feb. 23. The Ducks had come back from down 11 with less than two minutes to play in regulation.
Colorado closed the regular season 60-45 over Oregon State, climbing over Utah for the #5 seed in the tournament. The best defensive team in the conference, #5 Colorado held #12 Washington (there’s a story brewing at Washington; it would be a more complete story for the Rice transplants if post Nancy Mulkey hung on for a fifth year, though professional teams will be unable to resist her skill set) to 52, and #4 Arizona to 43, while surviving desperate pressing defense from the Wildcats.
The all-freshman nominees in the Pac-12 improved their teams noticeably in these final weeks. Colorado’s Kindyll Witta earned a spot on the all-defense team, and she contributed everywhere in the quarterfinal (6 pts, 8 rb, 4 as, 3 st). I love players whose parents are basketball coaches; they think on a different level.
Can they beat #1 Stanford?
Unless Stanford contributes heavily to beating themselves, no one can beat Stanford.
Last year’s championship team was a team of destiny. They played nothing but road games for three months, then won national semifinal and final games by one point each, with each opponent missing the last shot at the buzzer.
This year, Stanford looks determined to demonstrate that they can win another championship without the help of magic.
The #5 Colorado vs. #1 Stanford winner goes on to meet #2 Oregon or #6 Utah in the championship game Saturday.
In round one, Utah beat #11 Cal 66-60. Utah’s representatives on the conference all-freshman team — guard Gianna Kneepkens and forward Jenna Johnson — combined for 38 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots, and a steal.
Kneepkens’ 20 points was the game high. With 3:06 left in the game and the score tied, Johnson made three straight field goals to put Utah ahead for good.
In the quarterfinal, Utah beat #3 Washington St. 70-59 to reach the school’s first tournament semifinal since joining the Pac. The Utes’ 29-point first quarter set a tournament record.
Sophomore forward Peyton McFarland was helped off the floor after injury. Utah began the season with three players who could play the inside in their four-outside, one-inside scheme, but senior Andrea Torres’ career ended (with the same injury that knocked out UConn’s Paige Bueckers, though Buecker fell in December, and returned to play last week), while McFarland was on ice at the end of the WSU game.
Oregon’s forwards Sabally and Prince are big and strong, while Utah’s forwards McFarland and Rees are relatively slender and agile (to suit the motion office, and chase the long rebounds that result from attempting so many treys). That matchup would’ve been difficult enough, but if Rees goes alone, I think Utah’s time in this tournament is over.
Where the Bruins are concerned, first ask how many healthy bodies do they have. When their all-conference forward Charisma Osborne doesn’t play, they’re 0-2. In the last six games senior guard Jaelynn Penn (3rd in ppg, 2nd in rpg) missed, they were 1-5.
What do short-handed teams fear besides another injury? Foul trouble. The Bruins are 0-4 when one disqualifies.
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb is a friend. For more than two years, her teams lost when I was in the building, yet she made time to answer questions post-game. At the end of her stint at Cal, my health was such that I couldn’t form full sentences at pressers, so she finished them for me.
And when Southern California hosted Utah Feb. 18, I couldn’t root for both teams, or for neither (“What are you now, Switzerland?”, Coach Roberts said, so long ago it must’ve been when she was at Pacific and Coach Gottlieb at UC Santa Barbara).
If any result could be beneficial for both teams in the long run, an ugly blowout in USC’s favor might have done the trick. USC is on the bottom rung of a long ladder to elite status, and that win hinted at potential.
For Utah, a bad loss at the end of February (after winning five of six) might have served to ground them (like their Nov. 26 loss to Gonzaga following a 5-0 start). “Nothing is so healthy as a thrashing at the proper time, and from few won games have I learned as much as I have from most of my defeats”, said the chess genius Capablanca (it’s because chess masters and basketball coaches think so similarly that I think both games compelling).
UCLA has much more to lose, given eight seniors for whom there’s no proverbial tomorrow. One more day for the Bruins.