Pac-12 women’s basketball tourney predictions

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TONY NGUYEN | DAILY EVERGREEN FILE

Senior forward Borislava Hristova attempts to dribble past the California defense on Jan. 31 at Beasley Coliseum.

CODY SCHOELER, Evergreen sports columnist

First Round

No. 12 California vs. No. 5 Arizona State 11:30 a.m. Thursday

This matchup is fresh for both teams. These teams played each other just once this season, and it took place on Friday. The Sun Devils won 77-54 and there is little reason to expect a different outcome this time around. Arizona State is ranked 24th nationally and has 20 wins on the season. Their offense is not their bright spot; they do not have a player in the top 20 in scoring in the conference. The Sun Devils have been one of the best defensive teams though. They allowed 58.8 points per game, the fourth best in the conference. The Golden Bears finished last in the Pac-12 and have only managed to win three conference games. Their leading scorer is senior guard Jaelyn Brown with 14.5 points per game, 13th best in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are coming off a win against Arizona so they have momentum, but it will not be enough to take down the Sun Devils.

Prediction: ASU 72-60

No. 9 Washington vs. No. 8 Utah at 2 p.m. Thursday

The game between the Huskies and the Utes should be one of the closer matchups of round one. Both teams are very even when it comes to offensive output. Utah is the sixth best offensive team in the conference averaging and 68.2 points per game and Washington is seventh with 66.4 points per game. Due to the offensive parity, the game will be decided on the defensive end. The Huskies are in the middle of the pack on that end, ranking seventh in the conference with 64.1 points allowed per game. The Utes, on the other hand, are the worst defensive team in the Pac-12. They have allowed their opponents to score an average of 71.2 points per game. The last and only time these two teams have played ended with Utah coming out on top in a 74-65 game. Senior guard Amber Melgoza had 15 points for the Huskies that game and is the leading scorer for the team on the season. If the Pac-12’s seventh leading scorer can take advantage of the poor Utah defense, then the Huskies may be able to get themselves a win in Las Vegas.

Prediction: UW 67-63

No. 10 Colorado vs. No. 7 USC at 6 p.m. Thursday

In another tournament matchup that just happened in the regular season, the Trojans will take on the Buffaloes for the third time. The teams split the season series with Colorado winning the first game in January and USC winning Sunday, the most recent game for both teams. These teams are also incredibly even in their season statistics. Their points allowed averages are separated by 0.3 points and their points per game averages are only 0.2 points apart. The Trojans have been led by Pac-12 Freshman of the Year guard Alissa Pili. She averaged 16.2 points per game, best on the team and eighth best in the conference. She will be the key to victory for the Trojans. She had 20 points in their win against Colorado and only six points in their loss earlier in the season. Even though Pili will be playing in her first Pac-12 postseason play, expect her to rise to the occasion and lead the Trojans to victory.

Prediction: USC 64-59

No. 11 Washington State vs. No. 6 Oregon State at 8:30 p.m. Thursday

These teams played only once this season, with the Beavers defeating the Cougars fairly easily. Oregon State won 73-58 when the two teams played on Sunday. The Beavers have been one of the better teams in the conference all season. They are ranked 14th in the nation and have attained that on the strength off their fourth-best offense and third-best defense in the conference. Oregon State also sports two all-conference players: junior guard Destiny Slocum and senior guard Mikayla Pivec. The pair have very similar numbers this year, both finishing top 10 in the conference in scoring and assists. The Cougars have a star player of their own: senior forward Borislava Hristova. She was also named to the all-conference team thanks to her 18.4 points per game, third best in the Pac-12. Hristova will need to play her best tournament game of her career for the Cougars to win. The past two appearances she has scored nine and 10 points but her freshman year she had 24 points against USC. Even if she has a career game, it may not be enough for WSU to take down one of the best teams in the country.

Prediction: OSU 74-65

Projected Second Round

No. 5 Arizona State vs. No. 4 Arizona at 11:30 a.m. Friday

In the first tournament matchup featuring two ranked teams, the Sun Devils, ranked 24th in the nation, take on the Wildcats, ranked 13th nationally. These two teams met twice in the regular season with Arizona winning both iterations of the rivalry. Both games were close and had nearly identical scores. Arizona won the first one 58-53 and the second one 59-53. Junior guard Aari McDonald was the top scorer in both Wildcat wins. She led the conference in scoring with 20.3 points per game on her way to earning all-conference honors. Sun Devils senior guard Robbi Ryan actually outscored McDonald in their last matchup, scoring 25 points to McDonald’s 24 points. Ryan, also a member of the all-conference team, will have to repeat her performance to give Arizona State a chance in this game. Look for McDonald to take that a challenge and do everything she can to be the game’s highest scorer and leave with the win.

Prediction: Arizona 56-55

No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 9 Washington at 2 p.m. Thursday

The Huskies get the unfortunate task of facing the Ducks, also known as the third best team in the NCAA. It is hard to imagine anything other than an Oregon win happening in this matchup. There really does not need to be much evidence to support that claim but here it goes anyway. The two teams played their only game against each other over the weekend and the Ducks beat the Huskies by 36 points. Oregon also has the number one offense and the number two defense in the conference. Also, senior guard Sabrina Ionescu, nuff said. If the Huskies are able to pull off a miracle, they might be able to make the game close. If not, expect another blowout.

Prediction: Oregon a lot to a little (87-61)

No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 7 USC at 6 p.m. Thursday

Another rivalry makes its way into the tournament as the Trojans attempt to upset the Bruins. They accomplished that once already this season, beating them by two in a double-overtime thriller in January. The eighth ranked Bruins got the better of the Trojans in their first matchup, besting them by 24 points. This game figures to be somewhere in between. USC is on a three-game winning streak and the UCLA has suffered two of their four losses this season in their last six games. Pili will try to keep her freshman year from ending against the Bruins but may not be able to overcome UCLA’s junior forward Michaela Onyenwere. She is the Pac-12’s second leading scorer with 18.8 points per game and was also named to the all-conference team. She had 21 points in their lone win over USC but was outscored by Pili with 28 points. It is very likely that those two will end up in a duel to see who will advance with Onyenwere having the upper hand due to her experience.

Prediction: UCLA 73-70

No. 6 Oregon State vs. No. 3 Stanford at 8:30 p.m. Friday

The Cardinal and Beavers met twice in the regular season with Stanford winning both games by a combined three points. Usually it is difficult for a team to beat the same opponent three times in a season, but this Cardinal team has the talent to make it happen. They have obtained their seventh overall national ranking on behind solid play from junior guard Kiana Williams, sophomore guard Lexie Hull and freshman guard Haley Jones. The trio all average more than 10 points a game with Williams leading the way with 14.6 points per game, 12th best in the Pac-12. The Beavers own star duo will do their best to outscore the Cardinal studs. Slocum actually outscored each member of the Cardinal in both games, scoring 26 points in each contest. Oregon State has a chance to pull off the upset if Slocum’s star teammate Pivec can show up as well. She scored a combined 23 points in both games with 13 points being her most. This game projects to be close but the amount of talent that the Cardinal have will be the deciding factor.

Prediction: Stanford 65-63

Projected Third Round

No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 1 Oregon at 6 p.m. Saturday

As much as this game is about the Wildcats versus the Ducks, it is really about Aari McDonald versus Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu is the best player in the conference, if not the best player in the country. She won the Pac-12 Player of the Year award for the third straight year, breaking a bunch of records along the way. On the other side of the matchup, McDonald is no slouch herself. The junior won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year on the strength of her conference-leading 2.5 steals per game. Her play is one of the biggest reasons why the Wildcats had one of the best defenses in the entire country. They allowed their opponents to score an average of 55 points per game, the best mark in the conference. Unfortunately for them, Oregon is a borderline unstoppable juggernaut and will not want to bow out of the tournament this early. Ionescu was not phased by McDonald’s stout defense in either of their two matchups this season. She registered a triple-double in both games while averaging 16 points. The Wildcats pre-NCAA tournament season likely will end here but losing to the Ducks is not something to be ashamed about.

Prediction: Oregon 77-69

No. 2 UCLA vs No. 3 Stanford at 8:30 p.m. Saturday

This game figures to be the closer of the two semifinal games, as the two California schools will meet for the second time this season. The previous matchup resulted in a 10-point win for the Bruins but the Cardinal look to make it more competitive this time around. These two team’s season statistics are very similar, despite achieving those numbers in different ways. Stanford has the second-best offensive points per game in the Pac-12, largely due to their pair of all-conference players. The Bruins had the third best offensive points per game in the conference thanks to their own all-conference duo. The Bruins’ pair averaged more points per game with Onyenwere averaging 18.8 points per game and senior guard Japreece Dean averaging 13.7 points per game. The defenses are also similar. Stanford finished fifth in the conference with 59.6 points allowed per game while UCLA finished just behind them at sixth with 61.6 points allowed per game. Despite their loss to the Bruins earlier this season, the Cardinal are not used to losing in the tournament and do not expect to change that in this matchup. Stanford has advanced to the final game in the conference tournament each of the past three years while the Bruins bowed out in the semifinals each year. Those trends will continue this season as the Cardinal pull off the “upset” despite being the higher ranked team nationally.

Prediction: Stanford 76-74

Projected Final Round

No. 1 Oregon vs No. 3 Stanford 5 p.m. Sunday

For the third straight year, the Ducks and Cardinal meet in the final round of the Pac-12 tournament. This would be the third matchup between the two teams this season; both of the previous contests were won by Oregon. As much as Stanford’s talent and experience is lauded, Oregon has enough to match them, if not exceed them. The Ducks had three players named to the all-conference team, the most of any team. Senior forward Ruthy Hebard, junior forward Satou Sabally and Ionescu all earned the postseason honor. That trio finished fourth through sixth in scoring in the conference with Hebard leading the way with 17.5 points per game. She also led the conference in rebounds while Ionescu led in assists. Stanford showed they could hang with the Ducks in their second matchup of the year. They only lost to Oregon by eight points, the Ducks closest conference win of the season. Sophomore guard Lexie Hull had one of her best games of the year for the Cardinal, scoring 27 points. It was not enough to take down the Ducks, the best offensive and defensive team in the Pac-12. The Cardinal know what they have to do to beat the Ducks, they nearly pulled it off before, but third time will not be the charm for them. This Oregon team is just too good to lose if they are playing well, which they have been lately with 16 straight wins. The Ducks will win a tough bout against the Cardinal as they become conference champions and set their sights on becoming NCAA champions.

Prediction: Oregon 75-71