History will be made on Sunday. For the first time in conference history, the Stanford Cardinal will not compete for the Pac-12 tournament title.
Instead, after pulling off an incredible upset, USC will go for their first tournament title against the red-hot Oregon State Beavers, who enter the final on an 11-game winning streak. The winner will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, though ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme already has both teams in. In his bracket, he has the Beavers as a #8 seed (and his pick to win this game), while USC moved up from the "First Four Out" teams to the "Last Four In," with the upset of Stanford being the tipping point that gets them in as a #11 seed.
Back in January, USC made quick work of Oregon State at the Galen Center, winning 81-60 during their strongest streak of the season. Oregon State wasn't able to get it's defense wrapped around Cassie Harberts, who scored 22 points that night. Ariya Crook, meanwhile, built her reputation as SC's three-point specialist, knocking down four that night en route to a 14-point performance. After last night, she became the newest member of USC's 1,000-point career club.
The rematch in Corvallis was another story. Oregon State won 58-48, becoming the only team to hold the Women of Troy to under 50 points this season. Harberts was the only Trojan to reach double-digit scoring, while Crook only made two three-pointers out of 12 total shots from the field. The Beavers' Sydney Wiese, on the other hand, landed 17 points including five from behind the arc.
The Beavers' late season steamrolling helped them finish 3rd in the conference, and they have their stifling defense to largely thank for it. They are second in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed with an average of 61.7. Stanford narrowly leads the category with 61.1. Their semifinal opponent, Washington State, was the first team in eight games to score 60 points against them. Their strategy against USC will likely be the same as Stanford's: get Harberts in foul trouble early, remove the low post opportunities, and force the rest of the team to go for long-distance shots that will be limited to single possessions. The Beavers are in their element when they can turn the game into a low-scoring affair and get just enough production from Wiese to push them over the top.
For USC, there are two plans, both of which could be seen last night against Stanford. The first plan, of course, is to get the ball to Harberts down low and let her bank it in and force fouls. For much of the game, The Farm kept Harberts out of commission and even managed to get her to foul out for the first time this season. But before that, she came alive in the clutch, single-handedly scoring ten points in the closing minutes to win the game. The backup plan, which USC used before the final moments, is to score from long-range and jump on turnovers and rebounds. USC made eight three-pointers last night once Stanford started blocking all their shots beneath the basket. Crook was one of the usual suspects, but junior Alexyz Vaioletama (a.k.a. "X") shined when Harberts couldn't, earning a double-double with 19 points and 15 rebounds. With her physical presence on defense and strong team skills in the huddle, expect Vaioletama to succeed Harberts as USC's senior leader next season.
The final will be broadcast on ESPN tonight at 6 PM PT. If you can't get to a TV, follow @evanbud, @jeremyfuster, or @CChroniclesSBN for livetweet updates.