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LAS VEGAS — An unexpected finalist, a surprise retirement and a repeat champion as much in mourning as celebration transformed the Pac-12 women's tournament into something greater than the sum of its substantial on-court drama.
Stanford mowed down three opponents for its 15th title, finishing undefeated in the regular season and tournament for the fourth time.
A case can now be made for defending national champion Cardinal (28-3) being the No. 1 national seed going into the NCAA Tournament. Its 73-48 victory over Utah Sunday, combined with No. 1-ranked South Carolina's 64-62 upset loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final, will bring the two closer in the national polls despite the Gamecocks' 65-61 head-to-head win in December.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer wants her team to be placed into the NCAA Tournament's Spokane regional because of the relative proximity for Cardinal fans and because Spokane is the hometown for two of her starters, twins Lexie and Lacie Hull.
"I leave the seeding and all that bracketology to other people," VanDerveer said after the championship game. "We didn't even know we were the No. 1 (seed) last year. It doesn't matter. It's playing well, staying healthy and playing with each other. So to me, it's irrelevant."
Five other Pac-12 teams appear to be safely into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, which will be announced March 13. That includes Washington State, but UCLA could be on the outside despite being healthy enough to now play its best basketball.
Despite losing in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, its third loss in the last four games, Arizona is in position to be a No. 4 seed and, along with Stanford, to host a sub-regional. Oregon probably won't host after losing in the semifinals to Utah.
"We had a chance to earn it. We didn't," said Oregon coach Kelly Graves, whose technical foul with 3:40 remaining Friday helped Utah turn a one-point deficit into a three-point lead that the Ducks were unable to overcome.
"I did a terrible job tonight coaching, obviously lost my cool" after forward Nyara Sabally fouled out, Graves said. "I guess I gestured in the wrong way, breathed in the wrong way, something to that extent. And they made us pay."
ESPN projects Utah as a No. 8 NCAA seed, Colorado as a No. 9 and Washington State as a No. 11.
But for Utah to make its first Pac-12 tournament final and for Colorado to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2015 is a significant marker for both schools, which joined the conference in 2011-12.
"It's kind of validation that we're a legit program," said Utah coach Lynne Roberts after the Utes' first win over Oregon in her seven years. "In the short term, in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding, this will really help. So short term and long term, it's all good."
Stanford pays tribute to Katie Meyer
Stanford maintained its focus, even improving upon its final three regular-season performances, while processing the death earlier in the week of Cardinal soccer goalie Katie Meyer.
Stanford women's soccer won the 2019 NCAA title while basketball last year earned its first national championship since 1992. The teams are close and supportive. During the Pac-12 tournament, the basketball players wore Stanford soccer shirts while warming up and some wrote about Meyer on their shoes or wristbands.
"Each and every one of us had individual relationships with Katie just because of the type of person she was," said Haley Jones, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. "The shirts are just one thing we can do to show our support to the rest of the world, I suppose."
Said guard Anna Wilson: "It's a really small way of showing support. We know that her spirit is here when we're playing and her energy. If anyone got to see her play, she's definitely the most energetic goalie I've ever seen. We just wanted to embody her spirit while playing. I think we'll carry that through the rest of the season."
In the championship game at Mandalay Bay Events Center, Utah reduced a 10-point deficit to two at halftime — only to be outscored by 23 points in the second half.
"If (Cameron) Brink and Jones are both going, they'll cut down the nets in Minneapolis (Final Four site) again," Roberts said. "Those two alone are a matchup nightmare. When they're both going good, there's not much you can do. I do think they're the best team in the country."
Jones scored 19 points on Sunday and 56 in three games to earn Most Outstanding Player honors.
Stanford won its 34th consecutive game against a Pac-12 opponent, including postseason play. That's still well off its 81-game winning streak from 2009-13.
"It was maybe a little better concentration," in the second half, VanDerveer said. "They (players) got together and talked about it and just said, 'Hey, if we want to be the Pac-12 champions, we've got to play better.'
"(Utah) didn't seem to have their legs in the second half as much. We were running better and knocking down shots."
ASU's Turner Thorne retires after 25 seasons
After Arizona State's first-round loss Wednesday, coach Charli Turner Thorne gave a somewhat cryptic answer when asked if she would want the Sun Devils (12-14) to play in the WNIT.
Teams with a sub-.500 record must petition to get into the 64-team WNIT field, and ASU, with a high NET ranking (No. 47), would be a viable candidate.
"We'll probably have to huddle on that," Turner Thorne said after the Sun Devils' seventh straight loss.
The next day, the 55-year-old announced her retirement after 25 seasons at ASU.
She is the second-winningest coach in Pac-12 history (488 victories) behind VanDerveer, for whom she played from 1986-88.
"There's a side of me that just thinks, wow, I mean, that thinks of her as my player," said VanDerveer, 68. "Like, what are you doing? Keep coaching. But I'm really happy for her and wish her the absolute best in retirement."
Turner Thorne stepped away for a one-season sabbatical in 2011-12 and has long maintained that she would not be a coach for life.
The timing of her retirement comes after two COVID impacted seasons that ended a school-record run of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a desire to spend more time with her family, including her parents, and the prospect of opportunities in consulting and broadcasting.
"I've always been the one who is taking care of my ASU family, then the rest of my family knows I'm doing that," Turner Thorne said. "I had to flip the script on that a little bit. And also new challenges.
"At some point, I had to step back and say 'What do I want?' I wouldn't allow myself to do that until this last year or so, surviving this world we're in.
"It did feel like (it was) a good time, not based on results of the season but for my life. The job was taking its toll on my health. I still have my health if I will actually take care of myself, and I'm there for my parents. It felt really good to me."
Turner Thorne's teams reached the Elite Eight in 2007 and 2009; three other teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. ASU was a combined 9-45 in conference play in the three seasons before then-ASU athletic director Kevin White convinced Turner Thorne to leave Northern Arizona for Tempe.
"I love it when coaches go out on a high note, not necessarily winning a championship, but having success year after year and kind of good go out on your terms," Arizona coach Adia Barnes said of Turner Thorne's decision.
"Although I'm surprised. I thought she had a couple more years in her, but this is a hard job. It's extremely stressful. It never ends. So it will be good for her to have a chance to spend some time with her family."
Phoenix and ASU are hosting the Final Four for the first time in 2026.
"Obviously, I would help," Turner Thorne said. "Any major capacity (on the local organizing committee) would depend on what I've got in the hopper."
Potential replacements likely include current assistant Nikki Blue and ASU alums Stephanie Norman (associate head coach at Louisville) and Amanda Levens (head coach at Nevada).
Blue, 37, is in her third season at ASU. She was an all-conference honoree four times at UCLA and played in the WNBA.
Pac-12: Leaders on gender equity report
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff and deputy commissioner Teresa Gould addressed a variety of issues before the championship game, including the 2021 gender equity report focusing on NCAA championships.
"Coming out of both gender equity reviews (basketball specific and on Olympic sports), there's been a lot of progress made, but there's certainly a lot more to tackle," Gould said.
"As a league, we have been very proactive in that space and would like to see the NCAA consider how they approach their sponsorships and media rights agreements to make sure we're putting our women's sports in the most optimal positions to succeed.
"There's been great viewership and fan attendance in women's sports. We'd like to see the NCAA put our women's sports in the best position possible to grow."
Kliavkoff agrees with the report that bundling the broadcast rights to the NCAA Women's Tournament with the rights to 23 other NCAA championship events "devalues the true media value of women's basketball. If sold separately, it would garner a large media rights payment."
Upcoming women's Final Fours are in Dallas (2023), Cleveland (2024), Tampa Bay (2025) and Phoenix (2026), which will mark the event's first appearance in a Pac-12 market since San Jose hosted in 1999.
The idea of holding men's and women's Final Fours in the same city has been tabled for now.
"Coming out of last year's (NCAA Tournament) experience and the light that was shed on all the inequities, great progress has been made," Gould said.
"Additional resources have been put into the women's tournament, additional staff has been hired, an additional budget process. The swag bags on both sides are identical. Many of the findings coming out of that review already have been addressed."
On Meyer's death, which was confirmed by her parents to have been a suicide, Kliavkoff said: "I'm a parent of two college-aged kids. Nothing hits closer to home. I want us to continue to work across the conference in being ahead of the game and advocate for mental health for all of our students. You see the investment coming across all of our campuses in a significant way."
(That investment includes a recently-announced children's behavioral health institute at Oregon, funded by a $425 million donation from Steve and Connie Ballmer.)
"Particularly coming out of COVID," Kliavkoff said, "we have to double down and take care of our kids."
Pac-12 tournament lowdown
— Game of the tournament: Oregon edged UCLA in a Sweet Sixteen-caliber quarterfinal with much at stake for both teams, including the Ducks' chance to host a sub-regional and the Bruins getting into the NCAA Tournament.
"Sometimes, you have to close the computers and the spreadsheets and go, 'What did the eye test tell me?'" UCLA coach Cori Close said. "Our goal really is for us to put the 68 best teams out on the floor. And I think it you're watching this, it will be hard to say that we're not one of those 68 teams."
— Most Outstanding Player: Haley Jones (Stanford).
— All-tournament team: Jones, Cameron Brink (Stanford), Anna Wilson (Stanford), Jenna Johnson (Utah), Gianna Kneepkens (Utah) and Nyara Sabally (Oregon).
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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