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Nostalgia, greatness, emotion rule the day as USC women win final Pac-12 tournament

Nostalgia, greatness, emotion rule the day as USC women win final Pac-12 tournament

LAS VEGAS — Women’s college basketball is the best it’s ever been. Viewership numbers are at an all-time high. Records are being broken. The game is growing, and going, and as it does, we must remember where it’s been.

The last Pac-12 tournament was the perfect place for reflection.

One of the things Lindsay Gottlieb loves most about her USC squad is the way it opens eyes to the game’s history. As JuJu Watkins ushers in a new era of Trojan basketball, she shines a light on the players that defined USC years ago. Players like Cheryl Miller, Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie and the McGee twins.

Gottlieb called them not just the greatest USC players, but the “greatest women’s basketball players.”

“We're honored to be part of this kind of resurgence, this moment in women's basketball,” she said.

In a weekend dripping in nostalgia, Gottlieb’s nod to the game’s greats was fitting. She brought history to the forefront, and so did the championship’s pregame festivities.

Cheryl Miller’s face appeared on the jumbotron, urging on her alma mater and telling the Trojans to bring home a victory.

As the final seconds ticked off against Stanford, the Pac-12 joined Miller as legends of basketball past, and the USC Trojans moved forward as champions.

The last champions the Pac-12 tournament will ever have.

“I have so much gratitude for the Pac-12 Conference,” Gottlieb said. “It has meant everything to my professional career … It’s been all I’ve known, and for a New York kid, it is meaningful to me to get the championship in the last one.”

The Pac-12 teams sent their conference out in style, starting with the first game, three days earlier.

Frida Formann stepped into a 3-pointer – her fifth of the game – and as it dropped through the hoop, she could almost feel the history.

Years earlier, the Danish guard watched Sabrina Ionescu hit 3-pointers at Mandalay Bay, as the Oregon star was named tournament MVP. From in front of a TV screen, Formann was overwhelmed by the Pac-12.

“I remember thinking that I wanted to play in that conference,” Formann said.

Now, here she was. Moments after leading Colorado to a first-round win over Oregon. History, both past and in the making, was all around. Her coach, JR Payne, sat to her left, having just defeated Kelly Graves, who coached her at Saint Mary’s from 1995-99.

Minutes earlier Graves spoke of the love and respect he has for Payne, and she followed it up by saying he was like a father to her. If they weren’t playing the Ducks, she said, Payne would have been cheering for them.

Next year she will. Because next year there will be no Colorado vs. Oregon. No JR vs. Kelly. No Tara VanDerveer and Stanford. No Bruins. No Bears. No Harry the Husky or Wilma the Wildcat in the same Vegas arena. No Cameron Brink braids or Watkins bun.

JuJu Watkins of USC cuts a piece of the net after the team’s victory over Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game Sunday in Las Vegas. (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images)

No Pac-12.

This is its last dance. And as the 12 teams sought spots in the Big Dance, the end of the Pac-12 was hard to fathom.

“I'm just heartbroken about what has happened,” VanDerveer said, leaning against a concrete wall in the basement of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. “I'm sick. I don't even want to think about it. I want to enjoy this tournament that we're at right now.”

VanDerveer is a bit of a homebody when it comes to her team. They often arrive for tournaments later than the other competitors as she prioritizes time on campus and practice in their own facilities. The Cardinal arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon, following a morning practice in their home gym.

Though it’s not Stanford, California, Las Vegas has been good to the Cardinal. And before that, when the Pac-12 tournament was held at Key Arena, Seattle was good to them too. And L.A. before that. San Jose before that, and even a single year in Eugene saw the Cardinal cutting down the nets.

VanDerveer isn’t ready to put the Pac-12 in the past, but the conference record books will certainly remember her.

“We’ve dominated,” she said. “I don’t know how to put it any other way.”

Since 2002, Stanford has won the tournament 15 times, including a seven-year winning streak from 2007-13.

Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Brink has been a part of two of those, in 2021 and 2022.

The Stanford star could come back for another season, as she still has a COVID year of eligibility, but whatever she does, Brink won’t play in the Pac-12 again. Like Colorado’s Formann, Brink dreamed of playing in the Pac-12. Seeing that dream come to fruition and then watching the conference she loves disband is bittersweet.

She’s seen the highs of the conference – like when the 2021 tourney championship powered her team to an NCAA tournament title. And the lows – like last season’s conference title game upset at the hands of Washington State. But that’s what makes playing in the Pac-12 worthwhile.

Brink loves looking in the stands and seeing all the colors, and looking down the opposing bench to see players that she’s been friends with for years – off the court that is.

“It’s funny, fans think we don't get along,” she said. “But I have friends on every single team and it's great. I think we're all sad this is the last go-round. I’m honestly rooting everyone on.”

Then, with a sly smile, she said: “Just not as much as I'm rooting us on.”

In a tournament full of lasts, there were also some firsts.

Like Inez Vieira making a halfcourt shot to end the third quarter in her team’s first-round matchup against Arizona State. Utah does a halfcourt shooting drill in practice, but Vieira hadn’t made one all year.

“I made it when it counts,” she said with a laugh.

Not even 24 hours later, a Day 2 matchup between No. 18 Colorado and No. 13 Oregon State ended in a Beavers win after two extra periods. It was the first double-overtime game in tournament history.

Both in masks due to broken noses, Jaylyn Sherrod and Raegan Beers led their teams, finishing with 23 and 27 points respectively. It was Sherrod’s fifth Pac-12 tournament and the second for Beers.

This time, youth won out. And a Beavers squad without a senior on its roster advanced to the semifinals.

“That felt like a championship game,” Ari Waller, the tournament’s in-game host, marveled as she walked through the tunnel.

Gottlieb took it a step further, saying the quarterfinal matchup was “like an Elite Eight game.”

One day later, Gottlieb and company were a part of the second double-overtime game – an 80-70 win over UCLA.

Watkins added to the history by scoring 33 points, the most by a freshman in a Pac-12 tournament game.

If the Colorado and Oregon State game felt like an Elite Eight Matchup, USC and UCLA felt like the Final Four.

“I hope we're not facing a team as good as UCLA prior to [the Final Four],” Gottlieb said. “But it felt like – the atmosphere was amazing. … I thought the crowd was great. I thought there were big plays on every side. It was just an unbelievable basketball

game.”

That’s part of the shame of this historic conference parting ways. In its last year, the Pac-12 is peaking.

Lynne Roberts would know. When she took over at Utah 9 years ago, the Utes were at the bottom of the league. Now they are one of the conference’s fiercest competitors. But it took until the 2021-22 season for Roberts and Co. to have a winning record in Pac-12 play.

“When I took the job at Utah, we had some work to do, but I believed in what we

were doing,” she said. “And the league, you can recruit because the league is so appealing. Kids wanted to play in it.”

Kids like Formann and Brink. Like Lauren Betts, who transferred from Stanford after her freshman year but chose to stay in the Pac-12 by committing to UCLA. And Mackenzie Forbes, who left and came back.

She started her career at Cal under Gottlieb before leaving for Harvard and the Ivy League. But when the opportunity to come back as a graduate transfer arose, she took it.

“I think we’d all agree that it’s the best conference in the country,” Forbes said one day before being named tournament MVP. “Just the talent that's on display every single night. Anyone can beat anyone, as we've seen throughout the whole year.”

Forbes is part of an Ivy League group who joined USC over the last two seasons. Guard Kayla Padilla and forward Kaitlyn Davis complete the trio. They’ve been a key part of the USC rebuild, one that came along much quicker than anticipated.

The Trojans last won the Pac-12 tournament in 2014, and when Watkins signed to play for her hometown team, she was prepared for a season with ups and downs.

Ten years after its first conference championship, USC closed the Pac-12 with a win.

Stanford has the most Pac-12 tournament wins, but history will remember USC as the last champion.

This moment, Watkins admitted after her team’s semifinal win, was unexpected.

“I'm not going to lie, I did not think this would happen this soon,” she said. “But I guess timing is everything, and I'm glad that we're here.”

After the Trojans finished cutting down the net, Watkins, Forbes and Gottlieb walked on yellow and red confetti that littered the floor. They stopped to take pictures with fans as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” blared over the speakers.

With six top-25 teams and two projected No.1 seeds, the Pac-12 ruled the college basketball world this season.

For one final time.

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