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Maybe it won't matter once shots start flying Wednesday in the 21st Pac-12 women's tournament, but second-ranked Stanford being pushed in its last three regular-season games provides at least a glimmer of hope for an upset champion.
The Cardinal completed its eighth undefeated Pac-12 run with victories over Washington State (61-54) and Washington (63-56), trailing in the latter by a point with just over a minute remaining.
Before that, on Feb. 20, Stanford held off Oregon 66-62.
For the defending national champs, winning their 15th Pac-12 tournament title seems less of a given than it was a few weeks ago — not that coach Tara VanDerveer will do anything other than have her team prepared for an event that she treats as the start of the postseason.
"That's how you get the NCAA (automatic) seed," VanDerveer told reporters recently. (The Cardinal already is virtually assured of a No. 1 seed no matter what happens at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.)
Anna Wilson converted a critical steal into a layup and made 3-of-4 free throws in Stanford's 31st consecutive win over a Pac-12 opponent.
"If that's our 12th-place team (Washington), we've got a hell of a conference," VanDerveer said. "We had our hands full the whole game. We were not good at putting the ball in the basket. Thank goodness we did some other things."
The final week of the regular season, ending Saturday, resulted in four Pac-12 tournament seeding changes: Colorado climbing to the No. 5 seed over Utah, which is now the No. 6, and UCLA jumping Oregon State in the No. 7/8 spots.
That change means the Bruins will face rival USC in the opening round on Wednesday, with the Trojans playing better than they were in January when they lost twice to UCLA.
But leading scorer Jordyn Jenkins did not play against the Arizona schools last week due to injury, and her availability is key against battle-tested UCLA, which was dominant against Cate Reese-less No. 12 Arizona (64-46) on Thursday.
Colorado, which is on a four-game winning streak — including a double overtime victory over No. 25 Oregon — will face Washington in an intriguing No. 5 vs. 12 tournament opener.
"I don't know that I've ever cried on Senior Day until today," coach JR Payne said after the Buffaloes beat Oregon State for their first 20-win season since 2012-13.
"When you go through many years of difficulty, it just hits a little bit different. All of these guys made a commitment to do something about it and that is what makes it so special."
Third-seeded Washington State has won five of six games since losing 83-30 to Oregon in early February and could meet the Ducks again in the semifinals on Friday.
Player of Year debate: Stanford's Jones or Brink?
The all-conference teams and award winners will be announced this week.
The Player of the Year race, as we discussed last week, seemingly is an eye-of-the-beholder choice between Stanford's Cameron Brink and Hayley Jones, who are 10th and 11th in the conference in scoring and the top-two rebounders.
The Hotline nod goes to Jones, a 6-foot-1 junior guard, for her clutch play in critical situations and overall versatility.
The 6-foot-4 Brink has made major strides in her second season. And with a conference-high 11 double-doubles (Jones has eight), she might end up carrying the vote.
Kamie Ethridge, in her fourth season at Washington State, is a deserving favorite for Coach of the Year.
The Cougars have their most wins (19) in the NCAA era, plus a school-record 11 conference wins and their highest tournament seed (No. 3) by four places.
Our runner-up for Coach of the Year is UCLA's Cori Close for steadying the injury-plagued Bruins into seventh place.
Our choices for other Pac-12 awards:
- Sixth Player of the Year: Stanford's Fran Belibi
- Most Improved Player: USC's Jordyn Jenkins
- Defensive Player of the Year: Arizona's Sam Thomas
- Freshman of the Year: Cal's Jayda Curry
Belibi would start for almost every team the country.
Jenkins, a 6-foot-2 forward, has blossomed into a star as a sophomore, averaging 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Thomas already has made the all-defensive team twice and gets our lean over Stanford's Wilson.
Curry leads the Pac-12 in scoring (18.7 points per game) and has been a five-time Freshman of the Week.
In our view, 14 of the 15 all-conference selections are apparent even though Oregon's candidates can't be found in Pac-12 overall statistics because they fall short of the games-played threshold (75 percent) due to injury.
But the Ducks' Nyara Sabally, Endyia Rogers and Te-Hina Paopao are among the top 15 scorers in Pac-12 games, and Sabally is No. 6 in rebounding. (She likely will be third in Player of the Year voting.)
Others on our all-conference ballot: Stanford's Jones, Brink and Lexie Hull; UCLA's Charisma Osborne and IImar'I Thomas; Arizona's Reese; WSU's Charlisse Leger-Walker; ASU's Jade Loville; Colorado's Mya Hollingshed; Cal's Curry; and USC's Jenkins.
That leaves one spot, but for whom?
A second player from Washington State (Johanna Teder) or Arizona (Shaina Pellington)? Oregon State''s Talia Von Oelhoffen or Washington's Nancy Mulkey?
We settled on Gianna Kneepkens, another five-time Freshman of the Week winner, to represent Utah's first-class offense.
Coaching status quo: It's possible
Could the coaching carousel spin this spring across the Pac-12?
VanDerveer is completing her 35th season while ASU's Charli Turner Thorne is wrapping up her 25th. Neither is giving off retirement vibes, although a second straight national title could be an enticement to go out on top for VanDerveer, who turns 69 in June and already is the winningest coach in women's basketball history. (She needs two more wins for 1,000 at Stanford.)
It's conceivable that every Pac-12 coach could return for next season given that Washington's Tina Langley and USC's Lindsay Gottlieb are in their first year and Cal's Charmin Smith, in her third, is making some progress.
Ethridge, in her second successful head coaching stint (first at Northern Colorado), could be a target for a major opening like Texas A&M. (She starred as a player at Texas.)
Even if the Aggies promote Kelly Bond-White to replace the retiring Gary Blair, someone else might make a run at Ethridge or possibly Close, although UCLA is bringing in the nation's No. 1-rated recruiting class.
— Player of the Week nominees: Cameron Brink (Stanford), Taylor Chavez (Arizona), Jayda Curry (California), Mya Hollingshed (Colorado), Jenna Johnson (Utah), Charlisse Leger-Walker (Washington State), Ellie Mack (Oregon State), Alyson Miura (USC), Charisma Osborne (UCLA), Endyia Rogers (Oregon), Haley Van Dyke (Washington).
— Freshman of the Week nominees: Jayda Curry (California), Jenna Johnson (Utah), Rayah Marshall (USC), Tara Wallack (Washington State).
— Pac-12 Tournament (Wednesday/Thursday pairings):
No. 5 seed Colorado vs. No. 12 Washington, winner vs. No. 4 Arizona
No. 8 Oregon State vs. No. 9 Arizona State, winner vs. No. 1 Stanford
No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 USC, winner vs. No. 2 Oregon
No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 California, winner vs. No. 3 Washington State
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.
Jeff Metcalfe is a sports writer covering Arizona State University sports and the Olympics for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com sports, and is a correspondent for the Pac-12 Hotline. You can follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.
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