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

By | March 11, 2024

Women’s college basketball is the best it’s ever been. The number of viewers is at a record high. Records are being broken. The game is growing and continuing, and as it does, we must remember where it has been.

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

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

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

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

In a weekend full of nostalgia, Gottlieb’s nod to the game’s greats was fitting. She brought the history to the forefront, as well as the pre-match festivities of the championship.

Cheryl Miller’s face appeared on the jumbotron, cheering on her alma mater and telling the Trojans they needed to get a win.

As the final seconds ticked against Stanford, the Pac-12 joined Miller as legends of basketball’s past, and the USC Trojans advanced as champions.

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

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

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

Frida Formann stepped in for a three-pointer – her fifth of the game – and as it fell through the hoop, she could almost feel the history.

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

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

Now, here she was. Moments after leading Colorado to a first-round victory over Oregon. History, both past and in the making, was everywhere. Her coach, JR Payne, sat to her left, having just defeated Kelly Graves, who coached her at Saint Mary’s from 1995 to 1999.

A few minutes earlier, Graves spoke about the love and respect he has for Payne, and she continued 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.

She will next year. 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.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 10: JuJu Watkins #12 of the USC Trojans celebrates cutting off a piece of a net after the team's victory over the Stanford Cardinal 74-61 in the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images)

USC’s JuJu Watkins cuts off 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 his last dance. And as the 12 teams searched for a spot in the Big Dance, the end of the Pac-12 was difficult to fathom.

“I’m just heartbroken about what 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 where we are now.”

VanDerveer is a bit of a homebody when it comes to her team. They often arrive at tournaments later than other competitors, prioritizing time on campus and practicing in their own facilities. The Cardinal arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon after a morning workout at their home gym.

While 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 LA for that. San Jose before that, and even one year in Eugene saw the Cardinal cut down the nets.

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

“We dominated,” she said. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

Since 2002, Stanford has won the tournament 15 times, including a seven-year winning streak from 2007 to 2013.

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

The Stanford star could return for another season as she still has a year of COVID eligibility, but no matter what she does, Brink won’t be playing in the Pac-12 again. Like Colorado’s Formann, Brink dreamed of playing in the Pac-12. It’s bittersweet to see that dream come true and then see the conference she loves dissolved.

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

Brink loves looking into the stands and seeing all the colors, and looking down at the opponent’s bench to see players she’s been friends with for years — off the field, that is.

“It’s funny, fans think we don’t get along,” she said. “But I have friends on every team and it’s great. I think we’re all sad that this is the last time. I honestly support everyone.”

Then she said with a sly smile, “Just not as much as I’m setting us at.”

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

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

“I made it when it comes down to it,” she said, laughing.

Less than 24 hours later, a Day 2 match 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.

Jaylyn Sherrod and Raegan Beers, both wearing masks due to broken noses, 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 the youth won. And a Beavers team without a senior on the roster advanced to the semifinals.

“That felt like a championship match,” marveled Ari Waller, the tournament host, as she walked through the tunnel.

Gottlieb went a step further, saying the quarterfinal match was “like an Elite Eight game.”

A day later, Gottlieb and company were part of the second double-overtime game – an 80-70 victory 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 vs. Oregon State matchup felt like an Elite Eight Matchup, USC vs. UCLA felt like the Final Four.

“I hope we don’t face a team as good as UCLA was before [the Final Four],” said Gottlieb. “But I felt like the atmosphere was great. … I thought the audience was great. I thought there were big plays on all sides. It was just incredible basketball

game.”

That’s part of the shame that this historic conference is breaking up. In his final year, the Pac-12 is peaking.

Lynne Roberts would know. When she took over at Utah nine years ago, the Utes were at the bottom of the league. Now they are one of the conference’s biggest competitors. But it wasn’t until the 2021-2022 season that Roberts and Co. had 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

were doing,” she said. “And the competition allows you to recruit because the competition is so attractive. Kids wanted to play in it.”

Children 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 heading to Harvard and the Ivy League. But when the opportunity arose to return as a graduate transfer, she took it.

“I think we all agree this is the best conference in the country,” Forbes said a day before he was named the tournament’s MVP. “Just the talent that’s on display every night. Anyone can beat anyone, as we have seen all year long.”

Forbes is part of an Ivy League group that joined USC the past two seasons. Guard Kayla Padilla and forward Kaitlyn Davis complete the trio. They have been an important part of USC’s rebuilding effort, one that came together much faster than expected.

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 of ups and downs.

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

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

The moment, Watkins admitted after her team’s semifinal victory, was unexpected.

“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t think this would happen so quickly,” she said. “But I think timing is everything, and I’m glad we’re here.”

After the Trojans finished cutting the net, Watkins, Forbes and Gottlieb walked over yellow and red confetti littering the floor. They stopped to take photos 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 last time.

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