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Stanford shocked by USC in Pac-12 semifinals for early exit

The No. 1 seeded Stanford women’s basketball team was forced to leave Seattle a day earlier than expected when it lost to USC in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament. The No. 5 seed, USC, had just upset No. 4 seed Arizona State in the quarterfinals to put itself in a good position to capitalize off of its victory and retain momentum heading into its matchup with the Cardinal — and capitalize it did. USC beat the Cardinal 72-68 in a game that was a battle from the beginning, with seven lead changes and seven tie scores throughout the course of the game.

(FRANK CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

Freshman Lili Thompson (above) finished as the second-leading scorer for the Cardinal in their loss to USC with 13 points. (FRANK CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

In a fashion reminiscent of its quarterfinal game against Colorado the day before, the Card struggled to dominate after winning the opening tip. Their largest lead of the game was by six with 3:13 remaining in the first half. Stanford, however, was not able to maintain the lead heading into halftime after USC’s leading scorer, junior Ariya Crook, later scored eight straight points to tie the game up at 32.

Crook finished the game with 15 points, 13 of which were scored in the first half. The true standout for the Trojans, however, was Alexyz Vaioletama, who led the Trojans in scoring with 19 points. The game essentially boiled down to a battle of the bigs as Vaioletama and Stanford senior forward Chiney Ogwumike fought for postion throughout the game. The two practically matched each other point for point and rebound for rebound in the final minutes of the game, as Stanford and USC traded baskets with neither team able to secure a comfortable lead.

Stanford had a slow start to the second half, opening the period shooting just 2-of-15 in the first 10 minutes, allowing USC to build a 10-point lead. Stanford shot just 31.9 percent throughout the game, its lowest output in any single game this season.

Trailing and shooting poorly against the Trojans was not unfamiliar territory for the Cardinal this season, however, as they had overcome a 17-point deficit at the Galen Center last month for the NCAA’s eighth-greatest comeback win. In the semifinal game of the tournament, in order for USC to win the third meeting of the teams, it had to play aggressive and high-intensity basketball for 40 minutes. Ultimately, whichever team could maintain a high level of play for the entire contest was the one that would prevail.

“We played hard, but like coach said before the game, it’s not just about playing hard; we have to execute,” said Ogwumike. “It’s unfortunate to not win a Pac-12 Tournament championship, but we’ll use this game moving forward.”

Ogwumike tied the Pac-12 career scoring record with her 30-point, 21-rebound performance, but head coach Tara VanDerveer explained that the National Player of the Year candidate needed more consistent support throughout the game from teammates in order for the Card to have secured the win.

“Chiney battled and she was a warrior for us. Amber [Orrange] and Lili [Thompson] both made some big plays for us,” VanDerveer said. “We did not shoot the ball well. I thought we worked hard on defense, but offensively we really struggled. We have to have other people steeping up, more offensive contributors. We’re not moving the ball well.”

Freshman Lili Thompson finished as the second-leading scorer for the Card with 13 points and four assists, including a pair of free throws that put the Card up by three with 5:06 to play, at which point both teams started trading points.

The momentum finally picked a team several minutes later, however, when Trojan forward Cassie Harberts, who had only scored three points up until that point, netted 10 points over a span of two minutes to give the Trojans a 67-60 lead with just 1:23 left in regulation.

USC, however, missed key free throws in the final stretch of the game to give Stanford the opportunity to come up with a second come-from-behind victory over the Trojans this season, and in response, Thompson hit a jumper with under 30 seconds left to put the Card within two. However, the Cardinal could not execute in the end, as there was visible confusion between the coaching staff and players as to what plays to run, including on an inbound pass. A desperation 3-point attempt from Ogwumike with three seconds remaining was just off the mark and the Trojans advanced to the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament with the stunning victory.

Sunday’s championship game between the No. 3 seed Oregon State and USC was the first final game since the tournament’s inception 13 years ago that didn’t feature the Cardinal. Stanford had won the Pac-12 Tournament in 11 of those 13 years.

Another consequence was that with the unexpected loss last weekend, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is no longer a guarantee.

“We’re not going to worry about seeding; we are going to worry about getting our team ready and working hard, figuring out what shots we want to take and we can improve a lot in two weeks,” said VanDerveer.

The Cardinal will have a two-week break to prepare for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament and will await the selection show on Monday to learn of its seeding in the tournament.

Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem@stanford.edu. 

About Ashley Westhem

Ashley Westhem is the voice of Stanford women’s basketball for KZSU as well as The Daily’s beat writer for the team. She has been a desk editor for three volumes and plans to take over as Managing Editor of Sports next volume and aid in KZSU’s coverage of football. She is an American Studies major from Lake Tahoe, Calif., and aspires to work in sports administration, to positively affect the lives of student-athletes and the relationship between the athletic and academic spheres of universities.