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PAC-12 Women’s Basketball Is Having a Moment

The conference tournament has served as a showcase for a group of teams, headlined by Stanford and USC, that look poised to make a Final Four run.

LAS VEGAS — “Wouldn’t it be fun to have four teams in the Final Four?” Tara VanDerveer asked. “Put us all in different brackets, and we’ll be cheering for them.”

The legendary Stanford Cardinal coach grinned as she joked about the strength of the Pac-12. But her players looked a tad less enthused. It was hard to fault them: They’d spent the last three months in the grinding competition of the conference. Who’d volunteer for more of that in the Final Four? (Plus, as Stanford senior forward Cameron Brink pointed out, veteran members of this squad have already played one national championship game against a conference foe.) But the point felt well-taken. The Pac-12 has been remarkably strong this year. The conference tournament semifinals on Friday only underscored that. It was a showcase of four programs that all look ready to make deep runs. Potentially including up to, yes, the Final Four.

“I think we've seen everything, and this group of teams does that to you,” said Oregon State Beavers coach Scott Rueck. “And the fact that we played the toughest schedule you could imagine within our conference this year has tested us.”

No. 2 Stanford dug out of a double-digit hole in the first half in order to beat No. 13 Oregon State by a score of 66–57. But that drama was quickly surpassed by the next game, featuring the crosstown rival No. 5 USC Trojans and No. 7 UCLA Bruins, who’d split their season competition at one game apiece. The rubber match required not one round of overtime but two. On the strength of a gritty 33-point, 10-rebound effort from phenom JuJu Watkins, USC won, 80–70.

Oregon State Beavers guard Dominika Paurova dribbles against Stanford Cardinal forward Cameron Brink.

Brink logged 16 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks in Stanford’s win over Oregon State.

The rankings here speak for themselves. No other conference has three women’s teams in the top 10 or four in the top 15. (Or, for that matter, six in the top 25.) Their performances on Friday accentuated that. Watch out for any—or all—of these teams later in March.

This tournament week has felt heavy with history. It’s the last hurrah for the Pac-12, with a majority of its member schools set to scatter this summer as part of a formal dismantling, and if that loss is felt keenly in many sports, it’s especially so in women’s basketball, which has a long, proud tradition in the conference. This final tourney has appropriately been full of nostalgia; every new moment can be a vehicle for reflection on a past one. But anyone too caught up in reminiscing got a rejoinder on Friday. There’s plenty to appreciate right here in the present, down to the very last frenetic, double-overtime moments of semifinal tournament play.

“This league, it is a gauntlet,” said No. 22 Utah Utes coach Lynne Roberts, whose team may be a tourney threat in its own right. “This is my ninth year in it. This is the best it's ever been top to bottom … The coaching is elite. The players are unbelievable. It's disappointing that it's going away, that this is the last one, but it's been an honor.”

USC and UCLA’s extra-time thriller felt like “it could be a Final Four game,” said Trojans coach Lindsay Gottlieb. It was not always pretty. (It was, in fact, more consistently the opposite, with some missed opportunities down the stretch and physical, bracing play on both sides.) Multiple key players were in foul trouble before the end of regulation. Given multiple opportunities to draw up a potentially final, game-winning play, UCLA twice failed to get a shot off in time against USC’s defense. And freshman star Watkins, perhaps the single most dynamic player in the conference, had to be helped off the court after rolling an ankle in the first overtime—only to check back in a few moments later to help ice the victory. The intensity felt befitting a date far later in the month.

“We know that they bring a lot,” Watkins said. “We bring a lot, too.”

All four of Friday’s programs should be hosting March Madness games in two weeks. Oregon State, with its size and punishing defense, is likely to be a No. 3 seed. The other three here all have a case to lead a region of the bracket. Stanford has a clear path to a No. 1 seed. UCLA had been projected to receive one before Friday, but now, that spot might belong to USC. Or—if you ask them—perhaps it doesn’t have to be a choice between the two of them. “I think that what you've seen is that we have three No. 1 seeds in this conference,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “Point-blank.” Her counterpart with the Trojans agreed. “If you're watching Pac-12 basketball and the gauntlet that we've all gone through, I don't think it's unfathomable at all to think there could be three 1 seeds,” Gottlieb said. “I don't know how the committee will see it, but I don't think it's too far-fetched.” It’s a long shot. But it’s a credit to the conference that such a case is even remotely plausible.

Stanford and USC will now play for the tournament title on Sunday afternoon. And beyond that? They swear they’ll be rooting for their conference compatriots for the rest of March.

“It's funny, too, fans think we don't get along,” Brink said. “But we have [friends] on every single team and it's great. I think we're all sad this is the last go-around, just honestly rooting everyone on.”

She paused before adding a qualifier.

“Not as much as I’m rooting us on.”