Posted on January 1, 2021
Last week was rather quiet around the league as teams kept their schedules largely empty over the holiday weekend. That quiet is over as the biggest weekend of the season is scheduled to kick off the New Year. All four teams who came into the season ranked in the top 10 will be in action…against each other.
If you don’t already have it, get the Pac-12 Network any way you can. You’re not going to want to miss this one!
On the Court
The quiet week included just six games and one cancellation, but that didn’t mean there weren’t surprises and big moments.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the early going this year is the strong play of the Washington State Cougars. After losing two of the best players in school history, the Cougars were picked to finish last by both the media and the coaches.
They have given no indication that they agreed with that assessment.
WSU now stands at 4-1 on the year and the one loss may be the most impressive game on their schedule. Of course, the wins have been pretty impressive, too.
On the 19th, the Cougars got their second Pac-12 win. It wasn’t just any win, either. Oregon State came to town. The No. 21 Beavers left with their third loss of the season, dropping them to 1-3 in conference play and 3-3 overall.
The Cougs weren’t done.
On Dec. 21, they hosted the Oregon Ducks. One team brought in the No. 1 class in the country. The other very decidedly did not. You wouldn’t have known which was which on that Sunday.
WSU came ready to play and built a six-point lead after the first quarter. They did not let down in the second 10 minutes, playing Oregon almost even and heading into the half up by five.
After 30 minutes, the Cougars still led, but it was by a single point. Would Oregon run away with it over the final period?
No, they would not.
The No. 8 Ducks were able to outscore the Cougars by five points to escape with the four-point victory, but it wasn’t what anyone outside Pullman expected to see.
On the side of the expected, the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats showed just how much they have improved as the season has progressed.
In Week Four, the Wildcats traveled to Boulder and Salt Lake City. They eked out the win over the tough Buffaloes in Colorado, then blew out Utah two days later.
It kept them a perfect 5-0 in conference play, tying them with Oregon for first in the league. It was enough to earn Player of the Week honors for star guard Aari McDonald.
The entire team would be honored in week five as they put on a dominant group display in a nonconference matchup against the Idaho Vandals.
Idaho came into the season as the co-favorite to win the Big Sky. The experienced team ended last year with the No. 2 seed in their league and was set to play in the conference championship game when the season was called off.
The game was meant to be a bit of a test against a solid mid-major. It turned out to be a romp.
None of the Wildcats’ starters were forced to play more than 20 minutes as they jumped on the Vandals early. Arizona was up 21-9 at the end of the first.
They were even more dominant in the second period, scoring 33 points over 10 minutes while holding Idaho to 11. It was 54-20 when the halftime buzzer sounded.
Arizona didn’t let up after halftime. They once again held Idaho under 10 points, winning the third quarter 18-8. A 24-14 final quarter gave the Wildcats the 96-42 victory in their most dominant win of the season.
It was a true team victory with five Wildcats scoring in double figures. A sixth put up nine points in just four minutes of play.
Freshman Lauren Ware had a double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds. Two of her fellow front court teammates were very close to matching the feat as Cate Reese had 12 points and eight rebounds and Trinity Baptiste put together eight points and eight rebounds.
All 13 of Arizona’s scholarship players got into the game with all but two playing at least 10 minutes. Twelve of them scored.
That all-around effort was good enough to be crowned the NCAA’s Team of the Week.
In the Pandemic
The inevitable news of cancelled games was kept to the bare minimum this week as only the game between Oregon State and Washington had to be called off. The problem for the Beavers is that the pause will continue.
When UCLA and USC travel to the state of Oregon this week, their only stops will be in Eugene. The games in Corvallis on New Year’s Day and Jan. 3 have already been postponed.
The two delayed contests will be the third and fourth postponed games for the Beavers so far this season.
The pandemic has caused a different kind of havoc for UCLA this year. The No. 11 Bruins have been limited to eight scholarship players all season.
After two of their junior guards opted out, the Bruins also ran into bureaucratic red tape. U.S. Government regulations have kept their two Australian freshmen from entering the country. That has led to lawsuits, but there’s still no resolution in sight.
But UCLA finally got some good news. They will get reinforcements in the form of an early entry by 2021 recruit Dominique Darius. According to ESPN, the 5-foot-9 guard is the No. 26 player in the class and the No. 9 guard.
Players of the Week
Last year, McDonald didn’t play on Arizona’s road trip to the Mountain schools. An injury to her leg left her in a brace for the rest of the season. It likely also played heavily into her decision to forego the WNBA Draft for a final year in college.
The Buffs and Utes probably wish she had moved on. In week four, she led the Wildcats on their first road sweep of the Mountain schools in program history. It was enough to get the nod for Pac-12 Player of the Week.
Week five was the time for another senior to shine. USC’s Jordan Sanders nabbed the first Player of the Week honor of her career with superb showings against California and Long Beach State.
The freshmen of the Pacific Northwest have been showing their strength over the past two weeks. Another one of Oregon’s stellar freshmen won the Freshman of the Week honors in week four. The Ducks’ Sydney Parrish scored 18 points while shooting .500 from three against Washington to get the honor.
This week, Washington State freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker grabbed her second Freshman of the Week honor this season for leading her team to the near-upset of the Ducks as well as a win over Eastern Washington.
Leger-Walker scored 20 against Oregon, the third time she has hit that mark this season. In her 40 minutes of action, she also dropped four dimes while shooting .480 from the field. Six of her 12 made field goals came from 3-point distance where she was good on 42.9 percent of her shots.
When the schedule came out, this week had to be circled by every fan of women’s basketball. All four teams who came into the season ranked in the Top 10 will face each other. It all gets started at 4 p.m. PST/5 p.m. MST as the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal come to McKale Center to face the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats.
If the contest lives up to the last two matchups between these two schools, fans will be in for a treat. In the 2018-19 season, the two teams tipped off in Maples Pavilion in the next-to-last weekend of the regular season. Arizona was able to build a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter, but No. 7 Stanford came back against the unranked Wildcats. An Alanna Smith 3-pointer with 24 seconds to go lifted the Cardinal to a two-point victory.
Last year, the two teams faced off the final weekend of the regular season in McKale Center. It was their only matchup all season. The 13th-ranked Wildcats and fourth-ranked Cardinal traded big quarters. After 40 minutes, there was no decision. Time for bonus basketball.
In the end it came down to McDonald. With eight seconds to go in overtime, she hit the go-ahead shot for the Wildcats. It lifted them to their first victory over a top-five team in school history.
In the early 2000s, these two teams battled for the Pac-10 title several times. It always went Stanford’s way.
The closest Arizona could get was a split of the regular season crown in 2004 with each team winning on its home court. The Cardinal won the rubber match, taking the five-point victory in the conference championship game held down highway 101 in San José.
Just over 15 years later, the two teams stand undefeated, hoping that they will be the ones who decide the championship once again. Round one is Friday.
That’s not to say that either team can get too far ahead of itself. The No. 8 Oregon Ducks and No. 11 UCLA Bruins have every intention of being part of that conversation, too.
Their first battle will be Sunday at 1 p.m. PST/2 p.m. MST in Eugene.
Since Kelly Graves took over for the 2014-15 season, Oregon leads the series 9-4. The Ducks have only dropped one game to the Bruins since the beginning of the 2017-18 season.
The Bruins do have some positives they can look at, though. Seven of the 15 games in the Graves era have been decided by fewer than five points or gone to overtime.
What will the next chapter look like? Find the Pac-12 Network and tune in.
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