Seven Pac-12 teams ready to Dance

Alanna Smith drives to the basket for Stanford against Oregon State in the Pac-12 Conference championship game earlier this month. Both teams earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Photo by Michael Houston/T.G.Sportstv1.
Alanna Smith drives to the basket for Stanford against Oregon State in the Pac-12 Conference championship game earlier this month. Both teams earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Photo by Michael Houston/T.G.Sportstv1.

Pac-12 programs celebrated seeing a league-record seven teams earn bids to the NCAA Tournament Monday. And at the same time, coaches are looking ahead to their first-round match ups this weekend.

Both Stanford and Oregon State earned No. 2 seeds – the Beavers in the Stockton regional and the Cardinal, in the Lexington bracket. Washington is a No. 3 seed in the Oklahoma City regional, and fourth-seeded UCLA is on the Bridgeport side of the bracket. Arizona State is No. 8 in the Stockton regional, and Oregon was tabbed as a tenth seed for Bridgeport. It’s their first trip to the Tournament since 2005. Cal nabbed a ninth seed for Oklahoma City.

Stanford is the only school of the top four seeds, which host first- and second-round games, that has to travel, due to a facilities scheduling conflict at their home arena. They will face New Mexico State in Manhattan, Kansas. It is the 30th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid for the Cardinal, which comes on the heels of coach Tara VanDerveer’s 1,000th career win earlier this season.

Both Oregon State and Washington are coming off unprecedented Final Four appearances last year, and both teams drew record crowds of about 10,000 fans to at least one game. Husky coach Mike Neighbors anticipates more big turnouts this Saturday, as his team takes on Big Sky Tournament champions Montana State.

“I know this game is going to be electric,” Neighbors said. “I can’t fathom the teams that are in this, with the locale, the caliber, that the city, the state and the region wouldn’t come out and support.”

Neighbors said he and his team relish the chance to host, and are taking stock of lessons learned last season.

“We are excited – this is new for us,” he said. “We’ve crossed a few things off our list from last year as far as what not to do – game preparation, execution.”

UCLA will face Mountain West Conference champions Boise State, and host for the second straight year. Bruins coach Cori Close values the opportunity to elevate the women’s game.

“It’s so important on lots of levels to be playing at home,” Close said. “The reality is that we’ve got to grow the game in all of Los Angeles. It’s important for people to come and grow the game, which provides more opportunities for women.”

Last year UCLA had a selection party, but last night, 13 of 14 Bruins were in class during the Selection Show.

“I told them not to look at their phones during the show, but we texted them as soon as we got the game times and dates,” Close said. “I’ve only heard back from a couple of people, which shows the maturity of our group.”

The team is set for one day off and then what Close calls a “normal two-day game preparation before Saturday’s tip.

“We’re going to keep our schedule as normal as we possibly can,” she said. “Right now we’re in the middle of final exams, and that’s OK because it fits in well. We wanted to give them a good rest after the Pac-12 Tournament, to take in what it taught us. We’ve had the perfect blend of off days, letting them be students, they’ve had fun, and we’ve had some hard practices. We’re in a really good space.”

The Bruins initially took their Pac-12 Tournament semifinal loss to Oregon State hard, but Close said they’ve turned their disappointment into a learning experience.

“We need to execute better in the half court,” Close said. “We can’t rely on scoring only in transition. When the game slows down, how do we get easier shots? How can we not stand around and watch (team scoring leader) Jordin (Canada). We’re focused on finishing at the rim.”

Close said she has cautioned her team not to look past the Broncos to Texas A&M, who will also be in the Los Angeles pod.

“I told them to control their talk, control the talk in the locker room and when they talk to their families,” Close said. “Anytime you’re not doing what you need to do to prepare for Boise State, you’re distracted.”

Oregon’s return to the Tournament was not entirely a surprise, as they upset Washington in the conference tournament quarterfinals. But players reacted enthusiastically when they were selected.

Coach Kelly Graves, who turned Gonzaga into a super power before taking the helm of the Ducks program in 2014, is looking forward to the Tournament.

“I am so excited, because this is a program that’s going places,” Graves said. “This is going to be a national program very, very soon, and I hope to get that started now.”

Duck players were elated.

“It’s incredible,” junior guard Lexi Bando said. “It’s been since 2005 that we’ve been. I was watching (former coach Bev’s (Smith) teams when I was little, and just to be in that position, where we’re going to the tournament, is just incredible. I’m just super excited.”