Entering the Pac-12 Tournament as the second seed, No. 16 Stanford women’s basketball (20-9, 14-3 Pac-12) heads to Seattle for the first event of the postseason this weekend. The Cardinal will face the winner of USC (19-10, 9-9) and Washington State (3-14, 10-19) on Friday at 6 p.m. PST.
With no team having lost fewer than two games, the tournament promises to be interesting. Every team has a case to make, and the weekend should be marked by some tight games and maybe some upsets.
“We’re not head and shoulders above the teams below us, and the teams ahead of us are not head and shoulders above us,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer.
Nonetheless, Stanford has historically dominated the tournament. Last year, the Cardinal captured the title as a No. 2 seed, their 12th conference crown in the past 16 years.
The team will start by playing the winner of USC and Washington State on Friday
Entering the tournament as the top-seeded team, the Oregon Ducks (27-4, 16-2) have, like everyone else, their eyes on the trophy. Despite having a young team this season, the Ducks were able to come out on top of the conference, dropping only two games to Stanford and Oregon State during conference play. Oregon capped off its regular season with a pair of hard-fought wins in the desert.
“We are obviously riding the high after two tough games in the desert,” said Oregon head coach Kelly Graves. “Even though we are still a young team, I think we showed a lot of resilience.”
The Ducks are led by a dynamic guard trio of freshman Sabrina Ionescu, senior Lexi Bando and junior Maite Cazorla. While Bando went down during the season, Oregon is 11-0 with her in the lineup. Ionescu was named Pac-12 freshman of the year last season and was announced as the Pac-12 player of the year yesterday night, while Maite Cazorla led the Spanish U20 team to a championship last year.
A close second to the Ducks, Stanford is the only team that managed to beat Oregon in Eugene. This conference season, the Cardinal were able to consistently shut out the other team’s best scorer, which allowed the squad to earn quality wins at Oregon and third-seeded Oregon State.
“Our preseason got us ready for the Pac-12,” said VanDerveer. “It’s kind of this idea that what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. We are playing our best at the best time.”
Yesterday, everyone in the Cardinal starting five was honored. Senior Brittany McPhee and junior Alanna Smith were named to the All-Pac-12 roster, freshman Kiana Williams was appointed to the All-Freshman team, and junior guard Marta Sniezek and senior Kaylee Johnson both received honorable mentions in the Pac-12 all-defense team.
All season long, the starting five lead the Cardinal on the court, behind an impressive McPhee. When Stanford’s leading scorer went down early in the season with a foot injury, the team struggled, but in her return to the lineup McPhee really showed the sense of urgency that powers seniors. She scored a career-high 33 points at Oregon as she carried the team on her back with 31 second-half points.
“I think [McPhee] has had a fabulous senior year. Her passing her defense, her rebounding, all those things have improved,” said VanDerveer. “She’s a great scorer, and when she’s out there it helps other people.”
In her first season, Williams has matured in a versatile starting point and shooting guard. Midway through the season, VanDerveer, did not consider her as a freshman anymore. Heading into the postseason, the Cardinal will need Williams to keep her game up, even in a higher-pressure environment.
“She always showed great poise,” said VanDerveer. “We need her to be more aggressive offensively. Tournament time, you’re not a freshman anymore.”
Coming off the bench for the Cardinal, sophomore pair Nadia Fingall and DiJonai Carrington have provided the team with good minutes on both offense and defense. Their shooting and driving abilities spread the floor for Cardinal, and they are both heavy rebounders for the team.
“[Fingall] is someone who gives you presence inside, scoring on the block and great shooting,” said VanDerveer. “And [Carrington] can rebound, she’s physical, she’s competitive. When she’s playing her best basketball, we’re playing really well.”
Oregon State (23-6, 13-4), a potential opponent for Stanford in the semis, is also coming off a great season.
“It was an incredible journey for a group that didn’t have a lot of experience coming in,” said head coach Scott Rueck.
Throughout the season, Oregon State has established itself as a team that can be lights out from downtown. The Beavers are one of the most accurate teams in the nation from long distance, and are also very calm down the stretch. In fact, the team is 3-0 in OT this year, and has also won a lot of close games. Down in the third quarter against Arizona State last week, Rueck’s team bounced back behind senior Marie Gulich and sophomore Kat Tudor. Tudor is the Beavers’ leading three-point shooter with 78 makes this year.
“It’s part of the learning process. They go into the game, and for them it’s a different environment,” said Rueck. “These are all these little lessons we’ve had this year.”
Rounding up the top four, UCLA (23-6, 14-4) is a little disappointed by its regular season. Heavy favorite in a young Pac-12 earlier before conference play started, the Bruins are poised to make up for that in Seattle.
“It was a disappointing not winning the regular season,” said head coach Cori Close. “We had expectations, and it’s going to be about how we respond [in the postseason].”
Jordin Canada and Monique Billings have led the Bruins in scoring this season, and the duo should definitely have similar results in the tournament. Nonetheless, Close thinks that the success of the team depends on the rest of the squad.
“Year by year, [Canada and Billings] have added to their toolboxes,” said Close. “But it’s gonna come down to other people.”
Despite being excited to play in Seattle this weekend, all the squads still have their eyes on the NCAA tournament in a few weeks, and this Pac-12 tournament is a great way to prepare for that not only in terms of playing but also in terms of seeding. A crown for sixth-ranked Oregon would seal a No. 1 or No. 2 regional seed in the postseason; Oregon State (10) and UCLA (8) are also on the fence for a No. 2 seed, while the Cardinal (16) need a successful run in order to be able to host the first two rounds of the tournament.
“It’s been a long season,” said VanDerveer. “ We experienced some injures early, but now we’re healthy and playing well. We can beat anybody, but anyone can beat us.”
Tune in on Friday as the Cardinal begin their postseason campaign at the Key Arena in Seattle. All games will be broadcasted on Pac-12 Networks and the championship match will air on ESPN2.
Contact Alexandre Bucquet at bucqueta ‘at’ stanford.edu.