Pac-12 Tournament: What you need to know

Courtesy of Pac-12 Conference.
Courtesy of Pac-12 Conference.

Twelve teams. Eleven games. Four days. One champion.

Those are the essentials of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament, which starts Thursday morning at KeyArena in Seattle.

As four ranked programs (three in the top 10), and at least three more in the NCAA Tournament picture descend for the weekend, this year’s field promises at least a little March Madness before the real thing later this month.

Colorado's Kennedy Leonard drives past Emily Potter and Megan Huff. Photo courtesy of Pac-12 Network.
Colorado’s Kennedy Leonard drives past Emily Potter and Megan Huff. Photo courtesy of Pac-12 Network.

No. 8 Utah (17-12, 8-10) vs. No. 9 Colorado (14-15, 5-13) — 11:30 a.m. PT

Winner plays No. 1 Oregon (27-4, 16-2) at 11:30 a.m. Friday 

Both teams in the tournament’s first game enter looking to solidify postseason spots with at least one victory in Seattle. The pair split the season series, each winning on their home court.

The Utes are led by their post duo of senior Emily Potter and junior Megan Huff, the latter Utah’s lone All-Pac-12 pick. They’ve played close against the conference’s top tier, but have no wins in six tries against the top four seeds in the Pac-12 Tournament. Utah is, however, coming off back-to-back overtime losses against UCLA and USC in the last weekend of regular season play.

“I think when you come in as an eight-seed, you kind of have to have a little bit of an us against the world feel,” said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts.

Utah was without both Huff and Daneesha Provo for both games of their season-ending Los Angeles road swing, and there’s no word on if either will be ready for Thursday.

“I was really proud of our team, I think they were proud of themselves, because we knew that our backs were against the wall, the odds were stacked against us, and man, they fought like crazy,” Roberts said.

“I think if we can continue with that mindset, I don’t know if it’s a slingshot necessarily, but I do think there’s a mindset right now that we certainly had the last week, kind of a much more hyper focus on what we need to do. I think they realized we were down key people, and that’s what it’s going to take.”

Junior guard and All-Pac-12 selection Kennedy Leonard leads the charge for a Colorado team that went just 1-7 in January, but has bounced back since, says head coach JR Payne.

“Over the past four to five weeks, we’ve steadily been improving, not just from a basketball [perspective], just our overall chemistry,” Payne said. “Our young kids are really kind of evolving, we’re playing together, we’re playing for each other, it’s a different vibe with our team right now, a different feel, and it’s really been a lot of fun.”

The winner has the unenviable task of playing top-seeded Oregon on Friday, a team that boasts three All-Pac-12 players in Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, and Maite Cazorla and the conference Freshman of the Year in Satou Sabally. The Ducks took down Colorado by 19, and Utah by 16 in a Rocky Mountain two-step in January.

With a win over Arizona on Sunday, the Ducks clinched their first Pac-12 regular season title since 2000.

“Our kids are pretty excited about that,” said head coach Kelly Graves. “We feel blessed and fortunate. We played really hard and competed and even though we’re still a young team, I thought our team showed some great resilience over an 18-game schedule.”

The Ducks also hold the top spot in nearly every offensive category, leading the Pac-12 in scoring, scoring margin, and both field goal and free throw percentage. Ionescu leads the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging over 19 points a game, followed close behind by 18 a night from Ruthy Hebard, who also leads the conference in field goal percentage.

Cal's Asha Thomas drives on Washington's Missy Peterson. Photo courtesy of Pac-12 Network.
Cal’s Asha Thomas drives on Washington’s Missy Peterson. Photo courtesy of Pac-12 Network.

No. 5 California (20-9, 11-7) vs. No. 12 Washington (7-22, 1-17) — 2 p.m. PT

Winner plays No. 4 UCLA (23-6, 14-4) at 2 p.m. Friday

The second day of the game features a 20-win Cal team that can ill afford the blemish on their resume that would come with a loss, and a Washington team on a 10-game losing streak trying to end the year on a high note.

“We feel like we’re playing our best basketball right now,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “… I think we’ve sort of hit a different level in terms of our intensity and our balance, and playing a little better defense.”

While junior forward Kristine Anigwe remains at Cal’s core as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 17 and 9 per game, the Bears have also benefitted from the breakout freshman season of guard Kianna Smith.

“She’s been such an important piece for us all year, there’s no question we don’t win the number of conference games we’ve won or overall games without her, but for sure I think her kind of being in a really good rhythm, knocking down shots, being a little more confidence at this stage is incredibly important for us,” Gottlieb said.

It’s been a rough year to say the least for the Huskies, who have just a single conference win to their name (a Jan. 21 home victory over Washington State), but the team has played many conference foes close, with nine losses by 11 points or less. One bright spot to an otherwise dreary season has been the breakout campaign of sophomore guard Amber Melgoza — Washington’s lone All-Pac-12 selection — who’s averaging nearly 19 points a game.

Washington is coming off an 86-79 loss to Stanford on Sunday, a game the Huskies led by eight after one quarter, and remained within four into the fourth quarter.

“I just think that we have a team that was completely focused on winning possessions and battling through possession, one possession at a time, and not looking at the overall game, and on Friday they did a really nice job of staying focused possession-by-possession,” said UW head coach Jody Wynn.

UCLA will play the winner on Friday in the quarterfinals. The Bruins beat Washington by 17 in their lone matchup in Seattle, and knocked off the Bears by 36 in Berkeley and by 8 in Los Angeles.

While head coach Cori Close said it’s a balance between fighting for the conference title, and understanding her team is built for a long NCAA Tournament run, she knows her seniors — Kelli Hayes, All-Pac-12 pick and the conference’s leading rebounder Monique Billings, and conference Defensive Player of the Year Jordin Canada — want to raise the trophy in Seattle.

“Our players really understand what the seniors have done for this program and it’s been unprecedented, it’s been more consistent basketball performance that we’ve had at UCLA since 1978, and that credit goes to those three,” she said. “And so I really am grateful for them, and I think our underclassmen understand that, so it’s not just how much our seniors want it, but I think it’s how much our younger ones understand that they’re walking in a path that was very carefully and sacrificially laid by those seniors and they’re going to fight for them.”

Aliyah Mazyck drives to the rack. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.
Aliyah Mazyck has been key for USC this season. Photo by Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

No. 7 USC (19-10, 9-9) vs. No. 10 Washington State (10-19, 3-14) — 6 p.m. PT

Winner plays No. 2 Stanford (20-9, 14-3) at 6 p.m. Friday 

The second session Thursday kicks off with a 7-10 matchup that features a potential NCAA Tournament team in USC.

Under first-year head coach Mark Trakh — though it’s his second tour of duty with the Trojans — the team has surprised many with a .500 conference record, thanks in part to a pair of Pac-12 All-Defensive Team picks in guards Minyon Moore and Aliyah Mazyck, and All-Pac-12 forward Kristen Simon.

“Going 9-9 in the Pac-12, considering its one of the toughest conferences in the country, I’m proud of the kids,” Trakh said. “I know we’ve had a lack of depth, lack of height but I think our kids just really represented themselves well this year.”

Despite high expectations entering the season — after a surprise run to the WNIT semifinals with wins over BYU, Wyoming, UC Davis, and Iowa — the Cougars have won just three Pac-12 games, and enter the tournament on a six-game skid.

While not grappling with the same injury concerns that hampered them last season, Washington State has been without head coach June Daugherty since late January, after she took an indefinite leave of absence for medical reasons. This past weekend, the program was rocked again by the sudden passing of strength coach Dave Lang, which led to the cancellation of Sunday’s scheduled league finale with Stanford.

“I’m not sure given the events of the last week what our mindset’s going to be when we get to Seattle,” said WSU associate head coach Mike Daugherty. We’re going to try to rally.”

Sophomore forward Borislava Hristova has provided much of the scoring punch for the Cougars, while Alexys Swedlund is averaging just over 10 points a night.

The winner gets a matchup with the defending Pac-12 Tournament champions, as Stanford tries to repeat for the first time since 2013, when the Cardinal wrapped up a streak of seven straight tournament titles.

“We’re healthy and playing well, a little up and down but that’s to be expected,” said Stanford head coach Tara Vanderveer. “We’re not head and shoulders above the teams below us in the standing, and we’re not head and shoulders below the teams that are above us, so we know that we can beat anybody, and we know that anyone can beat us, and we just need to go out and play hard everyday.”

The Cardinal are led by a pair of All-Conference seniors in Brittany McPhee and Alanna Smith — the team’s top two scorers — along with All-Freshman guard Kiana Williams, who is averaging just shy of 10 points a game.

ASU's Kianna Ibis and Arizona's Lucia Alonso fight for ball control. Photo by Patrick Breen.
ASU’s Kianna Ibis and Arizona’s Lucia Alonso fight for ball control. Photo by Patrick Breen.

No. 6 Arizona State (19-11, 10-8) vs. No. 11 Arizona (6-23, 2-16) — 8:30 p.m. PT

Winner plays No. 3 Oregon State (23-6, 14-4) at 8:30 p.m. Friday

An in-state rivalry closes the slate on day one, as the Sun Devils attempt to lock down an NCAA Tournament spot against a rebuilding Wildcats squad under second-year head coach Adia Barnes.

Arizona enters the tournament losers of their last six, and 10 of their last 11, but played Oregon close in their regular season finale, cutting their deficit to five in the fourth quarter before the Ducks pulled away for a 74-61 win.

“I think that if we play with the energy and intensity like we did against Oregon, I think we have a chance to get a win,” Barnes said. “It takes everybody just doing a little bit more with our short bench, and I though JaLea [Bennett] played really hard, Destiny [Graham] played really hard, and they brought a tremendous amount of energy.”

Forward Sam Thomas is one to watch for the Wildcats, named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, leading first-year conference players in rebounding, steals, blocks, and minutes, while sitting second in scoring, and third in 3-point percentage.

Meanwhile, the senior-less Sun Devils are coming off losses to Oregon and Oregon State this past weekend.

“I thought we were solid with our rebounding, we were solid with our defense in some ways … but I feel like this team knows that they’re just a lot better than what they played,” said ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne of the weekend.

The Sun Devils — who boast the top scoring defense in the conference — cruised in back-to-back regular season matchups with the Wildcats two weeks ago, with a 25-point win in Tempe, and a 24-point victory two days later in Tucson.

“It’s difficult to beat a team three times, and trust me, we know that,” Turner Thorne said.

The winner gets to face perhaps the most surging team in the Pac-12 in an Oregon State squad that has won its last seven games.

“This season has been an incredible journey for a group that had relative inexperience at so many positions at the beginning of the year, along with the incredible expectations of success that this program has developed over the years,” said OSU head coach Scott Rueck. “That’s a tricky balance, and I’m just so proud of them for staying the course and learning from each lesson and continuing to improve.”

Rueck praised the “unbelievable leadership,” from All-Pac-12 center Marie Gulich, while sophomore guards Kat Tudor and Mikayla Pivec averaged 12 and 11 points per night in the regular season.