The Stanford women’s basketball team travels to Corvallis, Ore., tonight with a chance to clinch the inaugural Pac-12 title, and its 12th straight conference title overall. Should the Cardinal defeat Oregon State, it will be guaranteed at least a share of the trophy with four games to go, and Stanford can claim the title outright if second-place Cal loses to Oregon in Eugene.
This week, the Cardinal (22-1, 13-0 Pac-12) moved up to No. 3 in the nation as a result of Notre Dame’s 65-63 loss to West Virginia on Sunday. The team enters tonight’s game undefeated in its last 70 conference games, on a 24-game winning streak against the Beavers (17-7, 8-5) and leading the all-time series 48-6. With last weekend’s sweep of the Southern California schools, it also guaranteed it can’t finish outside of the top four in conference and thus received a bye to the quarterfinals of March’s Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles.
However, playing Oregon State at home may prove a tricky proposition. After finishing dead last with a 2-16 conference record last season and starting slowly this year, head coach Scott Rueck has turned this team around in his second year at the helm. The Beavers are now on a six-game winning streak and currently sit in third place. A strong finish in the last five games of the regular season could lift OSU above Cal and possibly give the Beavers an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
As if that was not motivation enough for the Beavers, they know that, except for UConn and Cal, they are the team that pushed the Card closest all season, narrowly losing 67-60 at Maples Pavilion back in early January. There were nine lead changes in that contest and the score was tied a total of 10 times. Oregon State held a four-point lead over Stanford at the half but could not quite hold on for the upset.
The Beavers’ top performers in January’s game were guards Ali Gibson, Alyssa Martin and Earlysia Marchbanks, with 16 points and six rebounds, 12 and four and 12 and three, respectively. Coming into tonight’s game, Oregon State may be looking to the same players; Gibson and Marchbanks currently lead OSU with averages of 12.5 and 12.0 points and 4.0 and 7.0 rebounds, respectively.
Two factors that made the crucial difference for Stanford the last time it met Oregon State were the Ogwumike sisters and fouls. On their way to a pair of double-doubles, senior forward Nnemkadi and sophomore forward Chiney combined for 53 points and 26 rebounds to lift the Card clear of the Beavers.
OSU also committed 16 fouls in comparison to Stanford’s eight, sending the Card to the charity stripe 12 more times than the Beavers, allowing Stanford to hold a 12-point advantage on free throws. This difference was crucial because the final game-winning margin was just seven. From the floor, OSU had a considerably better shooting percentage, 49 percent compared to 36.4 percent, hitting one more field goal than the Card and three more three-pointers, and it is clear that fouls, and free throws, won the game for Stanford.
This time around, Oregon State will need to repeat the physical performance that kept most of the Cardinal players quiet, but without sending Stanford to the free-throw line so often or letting the Ogwumikes catch fire. The bad news for the Beavers, though, is that since that game, head coach Tara VanDerveer has been able to count on major contributions from other parts of her team. While OSU has turned its season around, the Cardinal too has improved in the last month and a half. The team that travels to Corvallis tonight is almost certainly better than the one that narrowly won at the beginning of the year.
After the contest against OSU, Stanford will move on to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks at lunchtime on Saturday. Regardless of results elsewhere, if the Cardinal can engineer a sweep of the Oregon schools it will be guaranteed the Pac-12 regular-season title with three games still to play.
Tonight’s clash with the Beavers tips off at 7 p.m. in Corvallis.