NCAA Women: Smith leads Stanford to 13th Pac-12 Tournament title

The first half of Champ Week provided, as always, scintilliating performances, joyous memories, and utter heartbreak as conference crowns were decided, and seniors saw their careers either end with a tournament loss or continue on for another game. Among the Aussies, the stars once again shone brightest as Alanna Smith and Tiana Mangakahia picked up conference tournament awards, with Smith picking up the Pac-12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player as Stanford upset Oregon in the decider.

Stanford came into the Pac-12 Tournament as the #2 seed, but the Pac-12 in March is no place to even consider the idea of a script, let alone the notion that things might follow one. The Cardinal opened up their tournament against local rivals California, with whom they had split the regular season series. Alanna Smith had perhaps been outplayed by Cal star Kristine Anigwe in the earlier matchups, but the senior hung with her fellow future first round pick throughout to finish with 15 points and 11 rebounds as Stanford secured a 72-54 victory to leave no doubt about who owns the Bay Area.

The Cardinal were expected to play Oregon State in the semi-finals, but Washington had other ideas, knocking off the Beavers in a 68-67 thriller to give Stanford an unexpected opponent. Smith, however, was more than happy to oblige the Huskies, finishing with a second-straight double-double, this time piling up 21 points and 12 rebounds in a 72-61 victory that set up a championship game against an Oregon side that had eked out an 88-83 overtime win over UCLA in the other semi-final.

Earlier this season, Oregon had all but packed up the hearts of the Stanford faithful and left the building with them in an 88-48 demolition of the Cardinal at Maples Pavilion. However, giving a coach like Tara VanDerveer over a month to prepare for a rematch following such a drubbing comes with its own problems, and so it proved as Stanford came out firing in the championship game. The 12-time champions opened up a 14-point lead at one point in the second quarter, but Oregon responded to take a lead late in the third. But with Smith, as well as DiJonai Carrington, hitting another gear, Stanford put together a late run to secure a 64-57 victory and Stanford’s 13th title in 18 conference tournaments. Smith added yet another double-double, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocks. Alongside those stats, the senior also picked up the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, having averaged 18.7 points and 12.3 rebounds across the week in leading her team to the title.

Although Smith was the obvious star of the Pac-12 Tournament, Darcy Rees’ emergence as an integral part of the Washington side gathered pace in Las Vegas as the Huskies shook things up with a pair of upsets. The Huskies came in as rank outsiders against Utah, but with the freshman shooting a perfect 6 of 6 from the line on her way to 10 points and 8 rebounds in support of Missy Peterson’s 23 points, Washington rounded out a surprisingly comfortable 64-54 win. More would be required if the Huskies were to get past Oregon State, but Rees stepped up to notch 16 points and 10 rebounds for a career-first double-double as the Huskies held off the Beavers for a thrilling 68-67 victory and made their way to the semi-finals. Interestingly, Rees shot 4 of 13 from three-point range despite having never attempted more than six threes in a game prior to the conference tournament. Although their run would come to an end against Stanford in the semi-finals with a 72-61 defeat, Rees tallied 9 points to round out a week that demonstrated her importance to the Huskies going forward.

Meanwhile, in the ACC Tournament, Tiana Mangakahia led Syracuse to a semi-final berth and all but secured hosting rights for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in the process. Whilst the junior didn’t put up massive numbers in the Orange’s first-up win over Virginia, Mangakahia did what was required of her, tallying 13 points and 6 assists in a 67-57 victory to set up a quarter-final against fellow conference heavyweights Miami. The big game version of Mangakahia certainly showed up on this occasion as Syracuse put a third-quarter dip behind them to hold onto their halftime lead and secure a 92-85 victory. Mangakahia led Syracuse with 25 points and also registered a game-high 13 assists to set up a semi-final against hot favourites Notre Dame. Whilst the Fighting Irish proved far too good in a 91-66 rout, Mangakahia was once again solid to finish with 14 points and 6 assists. Although Syracuse may not have finished with the championship, Mangakahia was rewarded for her performances with a spot in the All-Tournament team, havnig almost averaged a double-double across the week.

Santa Clara’s trip to the West Coast Conference tournament may have ended prematurely, but Tia Hay provided one of the performances of the week to this point in the Broncos’ first round win over San Diego. The junior lived at the charity stripe, hitting 10 of 11 free throws on her way to a game-high 25 points as the Broncos stormed home with an 18-8 fourth quarter to eke out a 63-59 victory. Hay added 10 more points in the Broncos’ second round game against Pacific, but the Tigers proved too strong, turning a two-point halftime deficit into a 76-60 victory courtesy of a 43-25 second half.

Whether it be via securing an unlikely at-large bid or securing the WCC Tournament crown, Saint Mary’s would be required to go through a gauntlet that included hot favourites Gonzaga to reach the NCAA Tournament this season, and the Gaels came agonisingly close to getting one over the Zags, falling to a heartbreaking double-overtime buzzer beater in the semi-finals. Fresh off a 70-38 demolition of Loyola Marymount in which Megan McKay dominated with a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double, the Gaels came in carrying plenty of momentum, and it showed as they took it to the Zags for the entire contest. Carly Turner was scintillating in the back half of regulation and into overtime, finishing with 16 points and 6 rebounds, whilst McKay added 10 points and 16 rebounds for another double-double. Freshman Sam Simons added 11, and with 12 seconds to play in the second overtime period, Saint Mary’s held a 77-76 lead. But Gonzaga star Zykera Rice found a lane in which to get to the rack, and managed to lay the ball in as time expired, grabbing the thrilling victory and delivering a savage blow to Saint Mary’s NCAA Tournament chances in the process.

Taylah Simmons may have dominated for the entire evening against Bryant, but somehow even that wasn’t enough as Wagner fell to a 76-73 defeat, dropping behind the Bulldogs in the final Northeast Conference standings in the process. Simmons finished with game-highs for both points and rebounds with 25 and 12 respectively, but with the Seahawks giving up 18 offensive rebounds to 12, those few extra chances that Bryant had proved enough to secure victory as Simmons’ last second shot failed to find the nylon. That loss saw Wagner fall into a tough first-round contest against Sacred Heart in the Northeast Conference tournament, and although Simmons put up 18 points and 12 rebounds, the Seahawks fell to a 68-51 defeat to end their season. For the most part, Wagner hung with the Pioneers, but an 18-2 second quarter put them in a hole from which they could never recover, despite winning the fourth quarter 15-6.

Funda Nakkasoglu’s outstanding college career may have come to an end with a loss in the SEC Tournament, but not before the Florida veteran helped drag her team over the line one more time against Mississippi. In a game that saw the teams combine for 34 points in the first half and 87 after halftime, Nakkasoglu and fellow Gators star Delicia Washington tallied 17 points apiece as Florida edged their way to a 64-57 victory and a second-round game against Missouri. Although the Gators fell to a heavy 87-56 defeat, Nakkasoglu again led her team in scoring, tallying 14 points in her final game in the orange and blue and finishing her final season averaging an impressive 16.6 points per game and shooting 42% from three-point range.

Utah State’s Mountain West tournament may have come to a premature end with a loss to Wyoming, but the Aggies’ Australian cohort made sure to rewrite the record books in their final pair of games. Eliza West broke the Aggies’ record for career assists in the Aggies’ thrilling 62-59 win over Colorado State, tallying three for the game alongside nine points to move to 437 dimes for her career, which still has one season left to run. Meanwhile, Shannon Dufficy set a school record for double-doubles in a season with her 18th of the campaign, registering 11 points and 15 rebounds, whilst Olivia West added 13 off the bench. Steph Gorman and Rachel Brewster were hardly bystanders though, registering 10 and 9 points respectively, with Brewster also collecting 6 rebounds.

The Aggies then faced a Wyoming team they had already lost to twice this season, and once again the result was the same as the Cowgirls cruised to a 64-41 victory. Despite the result, Dufficy once again created history, breaking the program record for assists in a season, moving to 320 for the campaign after tallying 9 boards alongside 17 points. But with little support forthcoming, a Wyoming side that finished with four players in double figures was hardly troubled in cruising to the win.

Seattle had won just one game all season, but with Courtney Murphy producing two outstanding performances to secure WAC Player of the Week, the Redhawks tripled their win total for the season in the space of three days. The freshman put up 16 points on 5 of 9 shooting and also collected 7 rebounds in a surprisingly comfortable 68-58 win over CSU Bakersfield to put a cat amongst the pigeons in the race for seedings in the WAC tournament. Murphy then came within a single board of a double-double as Seattle used the momentum generated by the win over CSU Bakersfield, rolling to a 70-55 victory. Murphy finished as one of five Redhawks in double figures with 10 points, and also collected 9 rebounds as the pair of wins pulled Seattle off the bottom of the standings and into a 2-7 matchup against Megan Johnson and UTRGV rather than the dreaded 1-8 game in the opening round of the conference tournament.

Alex Sharp continues to make up for lost time in an injury-interrupted season, rounding out 2018/19 with another double-double in spite of Wake Forest’s heavy 85-63 loss to Virginia Tech in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The junior tallied 18 points and 12 rebounds, and also dished out 3 assists, but the Demon Deacons proved to be no match for a Virginia Tech side gunning for one of the last at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament.

Finally, as one Australian’s career at Southern Methodist came to an end, another Aussie ensured that the Mustangs’ love affair with players from this side of the Pacific will continue for at least three more years. Alicia Froling played her last game for SMU in the team’s 50-48 overtime loss to East Carolina, rounding out a spectacular career that has some even mentioning her name as a bolter for the WNBA Draft, but it was Paige Bayliss whole stole the show on court. The freshman came off the bench to tally a career-high 15 points as well as 7 rebounds in 32 minutes to demonstrate that she may be the one to help fill the gigantic hole left by Froling’s absence last season, which would be a massive boon for a Mustangs team that will need to rapidly replace Froling's production if they are to have any chance of competing next season.