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Women's Pac-12 Tournament features loaded field as conference goes out on a high note

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Domination is the key word in women's college basketball this season from Caitlin Clark's transformative assault on the record book to top-ranked South Carolina's statement-making 29-0 record.

Just as dominant is what the Pac-12 Conference has accomplished, going out on a high note before 10 of its members head to different leagues.

Six Pac-12 teams are ranked entering the conference tournament, which begins Wednesday. That includes three in the top 10 — No. 2 Stanford (26-4), No. 5 USC (23-5) and No. 7 UCLA (24-5).

The top three seeds in the tournament line up in that order, and the schools receive first-round byes along with 13th-ranked Oregon State (23-6).

Stanford, the 2021 national champion, won at least a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title for the fourth year in a row. The Cardinal have clinched it outright this season.

“It couldn't get much better,” Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. “It's very exciting to win the Pac-12. I think it's the most competitive conference in the country. Game in, game out you've got to do a lot of prep. We get everybody's A-game, and I'm really excited about how our team has responded.”

Three of the Cardinal's four losses came against Pac-12 teams, so there is no easy path for Stanford or any of the other contenders to the tournament championship.

USC closed the regular season by winning nine of 10 games, its only loss to No. 22 Utah. The Trojans beat three ranked teams during that span.

Cross-town rival UCLA enters the tournament having won seven of eight games, losing only to Oregon State while defeating two ranked teams.

“We are playing at a really, really high level on the defensive end and the rebounding end,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “If you're going to be playing something on a consistent basis, you want to build from defense and rebounding.”

ON THE BRINK

The Cardinal dominated the league's postseason awards, winning four of the six that were announced Tuesday.

Senior Cameron Brink was named overall and defensive player of the year after averaging 17.9 points and 12.0 rebounds. She also leads the nation with 3.6 blocked shots per game and is the conference's career active leader in rebounds (1,154) and blocks (397).

She could return to the farm for another season because of the COVID eligibility exception from 2020. Brink is the consensus projected second pick in this year's WNBA draft behind Iowa's Clark.

“I am still undecided on whether I will come back next year,” Brink said. “I'm just taking everything in and really appreciative and really enjoying my girls and we're really happy about the championship.”

Also from Stanford, VanDerveer was named coach of the year and Kiki Iriafen the most improved player.

WATKINS NEXT IN LINE?

If the Pac-12 had stayed intact, USC's JuJu Watkins would be positioning herself to replace Brink as the conference's top player after being named the league's freshman of the year.

But Watkins will have an even bigger name to try to follow when she and the Trojans head to the Big Ten Conference next season with Clark off to the WNBA. Watkins captured national attention with her 51-point game in a victory over Stanford on Feb. 2.

She was named conference freshman of the week a record 14 times. Watkins goes into the Pac-12 Tournament averaging 27.8 points per game, second nationally to Clark's 32.3.

“She lays it out on the line every single day,” Trojans coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I don't think we've seen anything like it in terms of her ability to go that hard all the time.”

PROJECTING OUT

ESPN's projects seven Pac-12 teams to make the NCAA Tournament, tied for third with the Big Ten and Big 12. The Atlantic Coast Conference is projected to have nine teams make the field and the Southeastern Conference to send eight.

But the Pac-12 is difficult to top in terms of quality. Six of its seven teams are projected to be seeded sixth or higher, with two teams (Stanford and UCLA) receiving No. 1 seeds.

Only the ACC, with seven, has more teams expected to be seeded sixth or higher.

BACK TO VEGAS

Only Oregon State and Washington State will remain in the conference after this season. Both teams are trying to keep the league together in some form, but reached an alliance agreement for next season as an affiliate member of the West Coast Conference.

That means both teams will be back in Las Vegas for the postseason next year when the WCC plays its tournament at Orleans Arena.

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball