Pac-12 women likely in for a close finish
Stanford's loss at home to UCLA on Monday night signaled that the Pac-12 women could be in for a wild finish to the regular season.
The Bruins' 85-76 victory over the Cardinal popped Oregon State into sole possession of the top spot in the league standings at 11-1 in conference. Washington and Stanford each have just two league losses, while UCLA has three.
''Wow, this conference is really, really good,'' UCLA coach Cori Close said after the win at Maples Pavilion.
The Pac-12's prowess is reflected in the polls: Five conference teams are ranked in the AP Top 25. The Cardinal are ranked No. 8, while Oregon State is No. 9 - its highest ranking of the season - and the Bruins are at No. 15.
Washington is at No. 10, while Arizona State is No. 23.
UCLA's victory on Monday was its first at Maples since 1999. The Beavers also beat Stanford there 72-69 in double overtime earlier this season. Oregon State had never won on the Cardinals' home court.
Stanford's latest loss came just two days after longtime coach Tara VanDerveer won her 1,000th career game, becoming just the second women's coach to reach the mark.
UCLA was also the only team to beat Oregon State in the conference season: The Bruins won at Pauley Pavilion 66-56 on Jan. 13.
''Six more games,'' VanDerveer said about the remaining conference slate. ''Anymore, the conference race is about seeding for the Pac-12 tournament. That's the team that gets the automatic bid. (And) you're not playing a balanced schedule. For UCLA, they go on the road again next weekend. You've got to come out and play every game and be aggressive.''
The Bruins and Beavers will face off at Gill Coliseum on Sunday, one of the key games in the final three weekends of the regular season.
Oregon State has won seven straight, certainly showing no drop off from the team that went to the Final Four last season. Before the Bruins, the Beavers will face USC on Friday night.
Oregon State is projected as a No. 2 seed in the latest NCAA Tournament selection committee rankings that were released Monday before UCLA's victory over Stanford. The committee will do one final top 16 reveal on Feb. 20 and the bracket will be unveiled on March 13.
The Pac-12 is boosted because by the nation's most difficult strength of schedule. Based on RPI, Oregon State has the country's sixth-toughest season.
The Beavers, who won a share of the Pac-12's regular-season title last year before winning the conference tournament, get four of their last six games at home. They'll host Stanford the final weekend of the regular season.
Because of the unbalanced schedule, the Beavers faced Washington only once this season, a 73-70 victory at Gill on Jan. 1. The Huskies' only other loss in conference came against Stanford, 72-68 on Jan. 29.
Washington plays in Sunday's other matchup between ranked teams when it hosts Arizona State.
UCLA has the toughest schedule down the stretch, in Oregon this weekend before hosting the Washington schools and closing at Arizona. But they're boosted by the win against Stanford on the road.
''A win like this pays dividends for us,'' Close said. ''It's a big hurdle.''
The conference tournament is March 2-5 at KeyArena in Seattle. The winner gets an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.