Time for a weekend in Vegas
The Pac-12 women’s basketball conference tournament begins on Thursday. The Oregon Ducks are the regular season champions after an impressive 17-1 run through league play. UCLA, Stanford and Arizona will also enjoy first-round byes.
Let’s tie a bow on the regular season with a few notes on the weekend and run through some awards picks.
Thursday’s first round will include an immediate rematch between Oregon State and Washington State with one key difference. Chanelle Molina did not play, with the broadcast citing a minor injury she sustained in shootaround that morning.
Any upset hopes for No. 11 WSU would take a gigantic hit without one of their two stars. A 16-of-25 shooting start and a five-point lead in the third quarter still wasn’t enough Sunday in Corvallis. The Beavers won the third period by 13 as WSU came back down to earth offensively.
I’ll be interested to follow conversations people are having about Arizona as Selection Monday nears. Yes, the Wildcats dropped two of three. They let a very winnable game slip away on Sunday coming off such an emotional high on Friday night. But let’s not forget who this team was all season with a healthy Aari McDonald. Adia Barnes limited her star to 24 minutes on Sunday, and McDonald’s absence (and Cate Reese being so under the weather) explains the 38-point outing in Boulder.
Even a potential Friday loss to Arizona State shouldn’t be a cause for any alarm bells. This is one of the best 16 teams in the country. McDonald’s health is the biggest priority at this point. Unless we get some bad news on that front, opinions on their NCAA Tournament prospects shouldn’t change.
For more on the Wildcats, be sure to read the latest from our own Kim Doss on the Golden Bears on the heels of Sunday’s big win and Arizona’s senior weekend:
The big question is "will she or won't she?" The answer about Aari McDonald's future is still not clear. Other questions were answered, though.
Russell injury update
Kiara Russell (knee) went down in Sunday’s tilt between Stanford and Arizona State, and it was tough not to fear for the worst as the broadcast showed an embrace between Charli Turner Thorne and the senior guard. Fear not. Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic reported that it’s just a bone bruise for Russell. The door is still open for her to return for the postseason.
That’s excellent news for the Sun Devils. As easy as it can be at times to harp on their need for more scoring and outside shooting, the other gaps between Russell and some of the team’s reserves were apparent immediately after she exited the game.
Lexie Hull took Sara Bejedi into the post and scored easily right over the top. Taya Hanson got blown by in transition. ASU failed to get matched up in semi-transition and Lexie Hull stepped right into a 3-pointer. A one-possession game became a 13-point deficit at the break.
Who’s closing for the Cardinal?
Before diving into the awards, let’s wrap with some thoughts on Stanford. Fran Belibi just turned in her best performance of the season—18 points, nine rebounds, four stocks in 24 minutes—in the regular season finale. Is the uber-talented freshman forward officially having A Moment? This question ties right in with what we saw in crunch time during Friday’s loss in Tucson.
One has to assume at this point that the ship has sailed on returns for Haley Jones and/or DiJonai Carrington. What that means for March: The Cardinal will have to win staying big. We know Nadia Fingall can help them win in big moments. Who will be out there next to her when the going really gets tough?
Sure, it’s nice to have a few different options (Belibi, Maya Dodson, Ashten Prechtel, Alyssa Jerome). It’s tough not to be skeptical of the proposition of a Final Four-type run knowing they’re leaning on this open competition. We know who South Carolina, Baylor and Oregon will be leaning on deep in the tournament—one key reason for their status above the rest of the field.
Dodson is their best rim protector. She only has six games under her belt this season. Though Aari McDonald is one of the toughest guards to challenge without fouling, we saw the dilemma facing Tara VanDerveer if the opponent is scoring over or around Dodson anyway. McDonald went right around her for a layup and drew a foul on another pick and roll attack late in the fourth.
Belibi, then Ashten Prechtel, got chances at the 5 in overtime. McDonald scooted right around Belibi for a layup then scored the game-winner over Prechtel like she wasn’t even there. The two freshmen don’t have the same defensive ceiling (though I think the gap between Dodson and Belibi in a lot of matchups is very close). What else are they bringing to the table?
The Cardinal need Prechtel (32.9 percent on 70 3-point attempts) to hit shots. This offense will be at its best when they’re throwing five 3-point threats at opponents at once. We have seen glimpses of what that might look like when Fingall and Prechtel are both hitting shots in the same game.
Belibi introduces a different element. She was the strongest and hungriest player on the floor Sunday, completely overwhelming a team that takes pride in its defensive intensity and rebounding. Belibi also has those face-up drives from the elbow and can score one-on-one in the post given room to operate.
Again, I’m taking the time to cover this only to highlight how difficult this stuff is both for the coaching staff (Who should play? When? How long before we try somebody else?) and the players, each doing their best to help the team whether they’re getting short bursts or longer stretches of run.
Oregon State, UCLA and the Cardinal battling it out in one half of the bracket with their sights set on Oregon sets the stage for two classics before we even get to Championship Sunday. How Belibi, Prechtel and Dodson in particular perform will tell one of the most important stories of the weekend.
Officially unofficial awards picks
Pac-12 Player of the Year
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon
Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year
Aari McDonald, Arizona
I agree wholeheartedly with the coaches here. McDonald is the head of the snake for the league’s meanest defense.
Pac-12 Coach of the Year
Adia Barnes, Arizona
I see two easy choices here. Kelly Graves shouldn’t be knocked down a peg because Oregon ultimately did what we expected them to do with the most talent. Being the hunted isn’t easy. I’m more inclined to shove Arizona’s final two losses to the side and appreciate the overall body of work and the kind of impact this season will have on both the program and league as a whole.
Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year
Taylor Chavez, Oregon
Frankly, this overall field was a little underwhelming. I struggled to build a case for a real challenger. You’d first point to the incredible amount of talent in Oregon’s starting lineup playing devil’s advocate with Chavez, but the Ducks really have relied on her to defend at a high level and knock down shots. The backup guards needed to perform to make their smaller lineups really sing.
Chavez has truly played at a level where they can trust her to close games on her own merits, not because, say, Erin Boley or Minyon Moore are struggling that night.
Pac-12 Freshman of the Year
Charisma Osborne, UCLA
I just can’t get there with Alissa Pili. The USC forward had a wonderful season. I think she should make the All-Pac-12 Team (below). Pili was the second-leading scorer in conference play (19.4 points) while shooting 57 percent on two-pointers on a limited and extremely short-handed USC team. Osborne averaged 14.2 per contest and was plenty efficient in her own right (47.1/34.3/80.0 slash line).
Yes, the team records have to carry some real weight here. USC simply wasn’t facing the same level of pressure on a night-to-night basis. Meanwhile, we’ve uttered phrases akin to ‘This is their year!’ for UCLA, in part because of the favorable scheduling break. Though the Bruins lost to USC and Washington, they also went 3-1 against the Arizona schools and 2-1 in their meetings with Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford.
By the way, I think there’s a real case to make that Osborne has been UCLA’s second-best player! This is where I’m probably furthest out on a limb. But Japreece Dean’s efficiency (34.1 eFG%, 32.6/25.0/87.7 slash line) has been a real concern. Osborne is UCLA’s only player shooting north of 30 percent from deep and led the Pac-12 in 3-point attempts (105).
Those extra baskets for Pili can’t tilt the scales in her favor. Osborne has been excellent on the glass and already has solidified a spot as one of the Pac-12’s best on-ball defenders. Pili doesn’t approach that level of impact on the defensive end. UCLA ought to be absolutely giddy with Osborne’s performance. I understand the argument for Pili, but I’ll maintain that the pro-Pili arguments are overlooking just how much UCLA needed everything Osborne has delivered for them to have gotten this far.
G Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon
G Aari McDonald, Arizona
F Satou Sabally, Oregon
F Ruthy Hebard, Oregon
F Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA
G Kiana Williams, Stanford
G Charisma Osborne, UCLA
G Destiny Slocum, Oregon State
F Mikayla Pivec, Oregon State
F Borislava Hristova, Washington State
F Lexie Hull, Stanford
F Alissa Pili, USC
G Amber Melgoza, Washington
G Chanelle Molina, Washington State
G Robbi Ryan, Arizona State
The league doesn’t actually draw lines for three separate teams. I like that extra step to really highlight just how good the five best players have been. The line after the first five was easy to draw. I don’t see any holes to poke with the second team save for Osborne, which I’ve already addressed above.
Hull is safe thanks to her two-way impact. Stanford needed her to take these strides forward as a scorer even more than we could have anticipated. I think Pili and Melgoza have been efficient enough and command so much attention that team record can’t be enough to bat them away.
One of the final spots came down to Ryan versus Dean. Naturally, I was uncomfortable with the idea of no representation for ASU but was willing to take it there. Dean just hasn’t been very sharp from the field down the stretch save for an 8-for-16 shooting performance against Oregon State. The January win over ASU is the only other significant notch in her belt. Both are a little underrated defensively. Ryan has been slightly better from the field and when it’s this close, somebody from ASU needs to crack this final 15.
I separated Molina and even view her as a lock because she has flat out been a better player than Ryan or Dean this season. Team success might make some feel uneasy about giving WSU two all-league nods. I think we’re all guilty at times of leaning too much on win-loss records with this stuff. The other teams are still trying to win when they play the teams below them in the standings!
Also, Molina just checks too many boxes. She led the league in minutes and has the counting stats (14.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.4 steals). Teams really have to gameplan defensively for her off-the-bounce shooting and she does so much damage inside the arc with her delightful in-between game. Only three guards with a usage rate north of 20 shot 49 percent or better on twos: Sabrina Ionescu (59.6 percent, 24.3 usage), Aari McDonald (49.2 percent, 36.6 USG) and Molina (49.7 percent, 24.4 USG).
Selecting Molina and Osborne over Dean and Cate Reese (a second Arizona representative) is where I differed from the coaches.
G Aari McDonald, Arizona
G Minyon Moore, Oregon
F Sam Thomas, Arizona
F Nadia Fingall, Stanford
F Dominique McBryde, Arizona
McDonald and Thomas were the two easiest choices. Thomas has been tremendous. She makes plays with her length all over the floor and consistently puts herself in positions to clean up mistakes around the basket even as she’s tasked with some of the toughest one-on-one assignments.
Fingall’s impact can be much more subtle. Stanford has been able to do some switching with both her and Fran Belibi which makes life much easier. I think Fingall really separates herself in this particular season because she gets where she needs to be and can grapple with bigger bodies. McBryde has a similar case. She’s really versatile and even has a little more oomph as a defensive playmaker.
Moore gets the last nod over the likes of Lexie Hull, Mikayla Pivec or Charisma Osborne. Moore, who only averaged 23.2 minutes, still has to get a lion’s share of the credit for Oregon’s defensive improvement. I buy her impact as a tone-setter on that end and the countless hustle plays she makes fire up the rest of the team. Oregon’s halfcourt defense at times has been far more daunting when they’re in a zone, but Moore has the track record. Her on-ball defense certainly hasn’t slipped, and she’s been the best of this group of four in that department.
F Alissa Pili, USC
F Taylor Jones, Oregon State
G Charisma Osborne, UCLA
G Brynna Maxwell, Utah
G Jaylyn Sherrod, Colorado
As impressive as some of the other freshmen in this league have been, it was easy to draw a line after these five. Minutes have fluctuated for Prechtel and Belibi. Lola Pendande can’t stay out of foul trouble. Jazlen Green did shoot the ball well for Cal this season. Helena Pueyo has been an important role player. Jaz Shelley is logging important minutes for Oregon.
There’s no substantial argument to be made against the first four picks, and even Sherrod shouldn’t be knocked down because of her efficiency. Colorado has been a really hard team to play. Sherrod’s ridiculous quickness has been a game-changer for their running game. She’s fearless, too, which really set the tone for her team’s solid showing in Corvallis and two near-upsets of Stanford.
All stats (via Her Hoop Stats) are current as of March 3 and are for conference play only unless otherwise noted.
Games to watch
All of them. The Pac-12 has a full bracket up on their site. Sunday’s title game (8 PM ET) will be available on ESPN2. I’ll have you covered all weekend right here on High Post Hoops with daily notebooks, updated with notes, observations and quotes from every game.
- In case you missed it, here’s the previous edition of ‘Around the Pac-12′ on UCLA’s loss to UW and Oregon clinching a share of the title with a second win over Stanford:
Breaking down the latest happenings in Pac-12 women's basketball including UW's upset win over UCLA and the second meeting between Oregon and Stanford.
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