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NCAAW: Pac-12 snuck up on rest of country

A year after the departure of Sabrina Ionescu from the Oregon Ducks, the Stanford Cardinal and Arizona Wildcats faced off in an all-Pac-12 title game.

Oregon v Georgia
Sedona Prince (far right) stepped up in the NCAA Tournament for Oregon.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Pac-12 women’s basketball has been improving in recent years and was the talk of the NCAAW in 2019-20. However, in 2020-21, the SEC became the clear-cut best conference — that is until the postseason.

The No. 1 overall seed Stanford Cardinal and the No. 3 seed Arizona Wildcats, both Pac-12 teams, advanced to the national championship game, which Stanford won 54-53 for its first title since 1992. Stanford beat one of the SEC’s finest in South Carolina in the Final Four, while Arizona defeated the SEC’s other top team, Texas A&M, in the Sweet 16.

The Pac-12’s success in the NCAA Tournament was limited to what Stanford and Arizona did in the later rounds, but it was obviously still a huge accomplishment to get two teams into the national championship game and demonstrated that the Pac-12 is still right up there with the SEC as one of the best conferences in the country.

Arizona v Stanford
Stanford celebrates its national championship.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The No. 6 seed Oregon Ducks, who lost generational talent Sabrina Ionescu to the WNBA Draft, joined the Cardinal and Wildcats as the third Pac-12 team in the Sweet 16, surprising many with its victory over SEC dark horse Georgia in the Round of 32.

Meanwhile, the No. 8 seed Oregon State Beavers dominated the Florida State Seminoles in the first round and the No. 3 seed UCLA Bruins also advanced to the Round of 32, though they were upset by Texas at that plateau. The No. 9 seed Washington State Cougars rounded out the Pac-12 tournament teams and faced a South Florida team that may have been under-seeded, losing a close one 57-53 in the first round.

Stanford has been a fixture near the top of the Pac-12 for quite some time. It hasn't finished lower than third in the conference standings since the league expanded to 12 teams in 2011 and has alternated Pac-12 Tournament titles since 2017. With major talents in sophomore Haley Jones and senior Kiana Williams leading the way, the Cardinal navigated the adversity of playing away from home for a huge chunk of the season due to COVID en route to a near-perfect season. Its only losses came back-to-back to the Colorado Buffaloes and UCLA on Jan. 17 and Jan. 22, respectively.

Arizona picked up where it left off last year as an up-and-coming power with an early win over UCLA and a 7-0 start. Come tournament time, many people were overlooking the Wildcats, but they made a thrilling run in the Big Dance behind the phenomenal play of superstar and projected first-round WNBA Draft pick Aari McDonald.

Oregon was without the single player most responsible for the rise of the Pac-12 in Ionescu this year, but brought in the top recruiting class in the nation. Redshirt sophomore Nyara Sabally carried the team in the regular season with the help of No. 11 recruit Te-Hina Paopao. The Ducks could have made a deeper run if Paopao had been available in the tourney, but she was out due to injury. Many thought Oregon might lose in the first round because of Paopao’s injury and the slump the team was in, but the talent it still had on its roster showed. 6-foot-7 forward Sedona Prince in particular stepped up and looked to be gaining her true form after redshirting in 2019-20 and not being a huge star during the 2020-21 regular season.

Oregon State had everything clicking in its first-round game against the Seminoles and was peaking at the right time after a rough 3-5 start. Senior Aleah Goodman led the team in scoring and had the second-best 3-point percentage in the nation at 49 percent on the season. She was aided by Talia von Oelhoffen, an early enrollee, later in the season.

Oregon State v Oregon
Aleah Goodman (jersey #1) of Oregon State celebrates a made triple amid her team’s Feb. 28 victory over rival Oregon.
Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

UCLA was an extremely talented team this year with Michaela Onyenwere and Charisma Osborne leading the way. Onyenwere averaged 19.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while Osborne averaged 17 points. Though their season ended in disappointing fashion, the Bruins went 12-4 in the Pac-12 and advanced to the conference tournament’s championship game by defeating Arizona in the semifinals. They lost to regular-season champ Stanford in the final.

Washington State was an exciting team this year, led by freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker, who finished third in the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 points per game), behind only McDonald and Onyenwere (WNBA talents). Leger-Walker took the country by storm and became one of the best freshmen behind Paige Bueckers of UConn and Caitlin Clark of Iowa with her clutch play.

The conference will be in good hands next year with Leger-Walker, Osborne, Jones, Cameron Brink (Stanford), Lexie Hull (Stanford) Cate Reese (Arizona), Sam Thomas (Arizona super senior), Oregon’s entire star core minus senior Erin Boley and von Oelhoffen returning, to name a few.

Watch out for the Pac-12 in 2021-22.