There is a long way to go, but right now the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal are the frontrunners to win the Pac-12 regular season and four other teams are head and shoulders over the bottom seven teams in the conference.
Two of those four teams, the No. 10 Oregon Ducks (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) and the No. 11 Arizona Wildcats (8-2, 6-2 Pac-12), meet Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
With the other two teams being the battle-tested No. 8 UCLA Bruins and the upstart No. 25 Washington State Cougars, who both have a lot of momentum, the Ducks and Wildcats can ill afford to drop the contest.
Momentum is something that neither Oregon nor Arizona has a lot of. The Ducks may have just handed the California Golden Bears their worst loss in program history on Sunday, but Cal is 0-6 in the Pac-12 and 0-10 overall. Oregon’s two previous games were both losses, coming at the hands of UCLA on Jan. 3 and Stanford last Friday.
The Ducks shouldn’t be embarrassed by those losses and both were close contests. Yet, they still had their hearts ripped out when Michaela Onyenwere of the Bruins made a game-winning layup to end an 11-0 run of theirs with 51 seconds remaining. And then they had a one-point halftime lead over the No. 1 team in the nation only to lose the third quarter 28-14. So while Oregon is still standing strong with a solid resume, it has been left to think about how high it could be ranked right now if it had won those two games.
Arizona has lost two of three as well, with the win coming in the middle on Jan. 3, also over Cal. The Wildcats were blown out 81-54 by the Cardinal on New Year’s Day and lost a heartbreaker to the Cougars in overtime on Saturday. Washington State is 5-1 in the Pac-12 now, but they were still big underdogs entering that game. Arizona has shown vulnerability lately and Oregon should be the favorite on Thursday.
Freshman Te-Hina Paopao has been a key player for Oregon over its last three games, particularly in the UCLA game in which she led the way with 19 points. However, Nyara Sabally, the younger sister of the WNBA’s Satou Sabally, may be the Ducks’ best player right now if scoring and rebounding are considered. She is averaging 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on the season. Erin Boley leads the team with 12.5 points per contest.
Arizona superstar Aari McDonald’s ridiculous 76-game streak of scoring in double figures is still alive. She is scoring 18.8 points per game and is joined by the Wildcats’ leading rebounder, Cate Reese, who is averaging 12.6 points and 6.4 boards. After them, Virginia Tech transfer Trinity Baptiste has emerged as the team’s third-leading scorer (8.2) and fourth-best rebounder (5.5).
No. 10 Oregon Ducks (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) vs. No. 11 Arizona Wildcats (8-2, 6-2 Pac-12)
When: Thursday, Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, AZ
Key to the matchup: Free throws. Oregon has advantages across the board except in the free throw shooting department. Arizona gets to the line more, which could make up for the fact that it shoots far worse from the field and the 3-point arc. The Wildcats need to be aggressive and continue to get to the line, while the Ducks, who shoot just 68.2 percent from the stripe, need to make the most of their trips to keep up with the Wildcats in that department.
Reason to watch: Oregon is just one blowout win over a weak California Golden Bears team removed from a two-game losing streak, while Arizona is coming off an upset loss to the Washington State Cougars. So both squads have been brought back down to Earth recently. Watch to see who can bounce back in a game that could have major implications when it comes to the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament.