The typical American sports fan regards women’s college basketball as the sporting equivalent of the box of baking soda in the back of your refrigerator. Both serve a purpose, but relatively few people pay much attention to them.
In most cities, anyway. Thankfully, Seattle is different. Way different.
The Emerald City added another memorable page to its women’s basketball picture book Saturday night at the Pac-12 Conference tournament. Oregon State and Washington staged a marvelous, gut-grinding battle in front of a record crowd before the eighth-ranked Beavers emerged as 57-55 victors in the semifinals at KeyArena.
“Great atmosphere,” OSU coach Scott Rueck. “It was fun.”
The Huskies might agree with the latter statement if point guard Kelsey Plum’s runner at the final horn had forced overtime. Alas, the shot bounced off the rim to end a frustrating night of shooting for Plum and her teammates.
“I shot terrible throughout the game,” Plum said. “Credit them. They played great, and best of luck in the championship.”
The tourney’s top-seeded Beavers (27-4) gun for their first conference tournament title Sunday against nationally 12th-ranked UCLA (24-7). ESPN televises the contest at 6 p.m. The third-seeded Bruins, who split two games with Oregon State in the regular season, downed California 73-67 in overtime in the other semifinal.
Both semifinals were thrilling contests staged for the largest single-session crowd (6,545) in the 15-year history of the tournament. Hundreds of orange-clad Oregon State fans and thousands of purple-clad Washington supporters cheered wildly as both teams came out shooting superbly in the first quarter.
Rueck, who stresses defense above everything but God and family, was not pleased with the offensive fireworks.
“We were trading baskets,” he said sadly. “We’re not used to that.”
The fifth-seeded Huskies (22-10) sank 12 of their first 18 shots, including 7 of 8 3-pointers, then went cold. Bitterly cold. Washington shot 18.8 percent (6 for 32) in the second half to finish the game at 32.7 percent. Plum, one of the national leaders with 26.2 points per game, went 4 for 19 and scored 14 points.
Asked how the Beavers shut down Plum, OSU wing Jamie Weisner simply replied, “Gabby Hanson.”
Plum said the Beavers play “phenomenal defense,” with 6-foot-6 center Ruth Hamblin providing a presence in the middle to support Hanson and others. Oregon State started the day ranked first in the nation in field-goal shooting percentage defense at 31.9.
Weisner, the Pac-12 Player of the Year from Clarkston, led the Beavers with 20 points. Point guard Sydney Wiese added 16 points, four assists and three steals. Weisner and Wiese both hit four shots from 3-point range, and Hamblin worked inside for 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Center-forward Chantel Osahor matched the four treys of Weisner and Wiese, tied the team-high eight rebounds of Plum and led Washington with 18 points. Forward Talia Walton contributed 15 points, six rebounds and two steals.
Osahor said the Huskies “weren’t tired” playing their third game in as many days, but Washington coach Mike Neighbors said his players were “exhausted.” The top four seeds received first-round byes. The Beavers should gain energy Sunday from having another large group of fans on hand to support them.
Rueck said transition defense and rebounding are key against the Bruins. UCLA leads the Pac-12 in offense; Oregon State leads the Pac-12 in defense.
The tournament champion earns the Pac-12’s one automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are planning on making a second consecutive trip to the Big Dance after winning two games at the conference tournament for the first time, including an impressive Friday win over traditional Pac-12 power Stanford.
“I’m as proud of our team as I was last night, y’all,” Neighbors said after Saturday’s loss. “Maybe more proud.”
The Pac-12’s four Top 25 teams are locks for the NCAA tournament, but No. 10 Arizona State and No. 11 Stanford might take a hit in seeding after going 0-1 in Seattle against unranked California and Washington, respectively. Oregon (20-10) is one of the Pac-12 candidates for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). The Ducks are 0-3 since leading scorer and rebounder Jillian Alleyne went down with a season-ending knee injury . . .
The Pac-12 announced Saturday afternoon that the tournament will remain in Seattle for three more years – at least. “Seattle has been a great home,” commissioner Larry Scott said at a press conference at KeyArena. Scott said television ratings for Pac-12 women’s basketball have tripled since last season . . . Fans were naturally curious when they saw a Griffey playing for the Arizona Wildcats. Yes, redshirt freshman guard Taryn Griffey is the daughter of Seattle Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr.