Story by Jeff Metcalfe
Utah blinked first in the duel with Stanford for first place, losing at 14th-ranked Arizona in the next-to-last week of the regular season.
The Cardinal capitalized, edging USC and then UCLA on Monday in a national telecast.
As a result, Stanford carries a one-game lead over Utah into the final weekend, which could conclude with the top two teams colliding Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Before then, the Cardinal must deal with No. 21 Colorado while the Utes face Cal.
“If we tie or win it outright, you’ve got a No. 1 next to your name,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “I’ll take it.”
The Utes already have far exceeded their best-ever finish in the Pac-12 (sixth place, attained three different times).
Stanford is seeking its 26th regular-season title.
The Cardinal’s 50-47 victory over USC last week “wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty,” coach Tara VanDerveer said. Stanford had scored a season-low 46 points in a loss to the Trojans in January and was hard-pressed to get much beyond that in the rematch.
The Trojans were without Rayah Marshall, who’s averaging a double-double, and still trailed by only three in the closing seconds when Destiny Littleton missed a game-tying attempt.
“Our defense will carry us a long way, but we’ve got to get our rebounding going,” VanDerveer said. “Playing really tough teams helps you. This was a tournament (level) game.”
So was Monday’s affair. UCLA awoke in the third quarter, transforming a 13-point deficit into a one-point lead and threatening to spoil Stanford’s Senior Night.
But junior Cameron Brink came within a point of her career high with 25 points — she was 15-of-15 from the free throw line — to assure a happy post-game ceremony for seniors Haley Jones, Hannah Jump, Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel. Against USC, the 6-foot-4 Brink surpassed Jane Appel as Stanford’s career blocks leader.
Jones also played a big role in the 71-66 victory over UCLA, scoring 10 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Londynn Jones, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week, led UCLA with 14 points (after scoring 19 Friday in a win over Cal). But Charisa Osborne was scoreless in the first half before an eight-point outburst, starting in the third quarter, that ignited the Bruins.
Ultimately, Stanford prevailed for its 23rd consecutive Pac-12 home win, a season sweep of the Bruins and at least some breathing room going into the regular-season finale.
Utah manages split without Pili
Utah led for only three minutes in an 82-72 loss to Arizona and played part of the game without Pac-12 scoring leader Alissa Pili due to an ankle injury.
Pili returned in the fourth quarter and finished with 26 points.
“Arizona was a big game and the adrenaline just carried me through the rest of that game,” she said. “I woke up not feeling so well (afterward), so I decided to take a rest (against ASU) and get ready for next week and the tournament.”
Pili’s absence showed early against the Sun Devils, who led 9-0 and 17-7. Utah’s guards penetrated for five straight baskets in the fourth.
“That’s the first time we’ve played without her, and it was evident,” Roberts said. “That was a variable, then coming off an emotional loss on Friday. We just looked flat. We didn’t play great, but we found a way.”
Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson combined for 37 points (half of Utah’s total) and 12 rebounds against ASU.
“It was kind of adjusting, where we all have to chip in and fill that (Pili) void,” Kneepkens said. “All of us buying into doing a little more.”
Utah was No. 8 in the AP poll released on Monday, a four-spot drop from the highest ranking in school history.
Pellington propels Arizona sweep
The focus on Stanford and Utah shouldn’t overshadow what Arizona accomplished by sweeping Utah and Colorado. The Wildcats climbed to fourth place in the Pac-12, a prized position because the top four teams are exempt from playing in the opening round of the conference tournament.
Shaina Pellington more than earned Pac-12 Player the Week honors with a career-high 35 points, eight rebounds and five steals against Utah; she then scored a game-high 19 points in the win over Colorado.
The senior guard had 23 first-half points against the Utes — she made her first 11 shots — in front of a crowd of 8,238 at McKale Center as Arizona avenged a one-point loss in January.
“I started off on fire,” Pellington said. “It just kept going and going and going. I also wanted to make sure that I was taking shots that made sense in the flow of the game.”
Utah and Colorado were a combined 5-of-31 from 3-point range in Tucson, a credit to defense by Pellington, Helena Pueyo and company.
Colorado managed a road split thanks to an 8-0 run over the final three minutes at ASU, which included a 3-pointer by Frida Formann. Kindyll Wetta also hit a difference-making trey in the final seconds of the third quarter, and Tameiya Sadler scored 16 points off the bench.
The Buffaloes committed 20 turnovers in both Arizona games, something they couldn’t overcome Sunday when UA also evened the season score in that series.
Washington schools sweep, Cal pulls upset
The Washington schools bounced back from a winless swing through the Mountain trip to handle the struggling Oregon schools, which are now on eight- (Oregon State) and seven-game (Oregon) losing streaks.
Washington was forecast to finish 10th in the Pac-12 preseason polls but is 7-9 in conference play and in eighth place.
The Huskies trailed at halftime (32-27) against Oregon but took control with a 12-2 run late in the third quarter and never trailed in the fourth for their first win over the Ducks since 2016.
Oregon was without freshman star Grace VanSlooten due to an ankle injury suffered Friday and used just eight players.
Bella Murekatete was the weekend star for Washington State with a combined 36 points and 16 rebounds. The Cougars solidified their NCAA Tournament hopes with a sweep while Oregon is playing itself out of the Big Dance despite its impressive (No. 24) NET ranking.
Washington is a viable candidate for the WNIT.
Cal pulled off the upset of the week, beating USC 81-78 in overtime after the disappointment of having a Trojan foul at the end of regulation being overturned upon review. (It was ruled to have occurred after the buzzer.)
With Kadi Sissoko scoring a season-high 30 points, USC had multiple chances in the final minute of overtime that didn’t fall. Jayda Curry (27 points) led Cal to its best win of the season.
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