Pac-12’s final chapter is not over yet. Conference has 5 teams in women’s Sweet 16

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer reacts toward players during the first half of the team's second-round college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament against Iowa State in Stanford, Calif., Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer reacts toward players during the first half of the team’s second-round college basketball game in the women’s NCAA Tournament against Iowa State in Stanford, Calif., Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a women’s NCAA Tournament where Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, LSU coach Kim Mulkey and undefeated South Carolina have dominated the headlines, the Pac-12 Conference is making sure it doesn’t go away quietly in its final season.

The onetime Conference of Champions leads the way with five teams making the Sweet 16.

The Pac-12 is one of five conferences to have multiple teams get to the regional semifinals. The ACC has three, with the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 placing two apiece.

The Pac-12 also had five teams get to the second weekend of tournament play in 2017 and ’19.

The conference has had at least one team reach seven of the last 10 women’s Final Fours. That includes an all-Pac-12 final in 2021 when Stanford defeated Arizona.

“Every coach is campaigning that their conference is the best in the country. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. Well, I’m going to say it, and I’m going to say our numbers are backing it up,” UCLA coach Cori Close said after the Bruins defeated Creighton 67-63 on Monday night.

Southern California coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who led California to the Women’s Final Four in 2013, said she is not surprised with the showing because everyone in the conference knew what one another was capable of doing.

“It was such a good league top to bottom. I’ve said the whole time I think even the teams in the middle were better than people realized,” Gottlieb said after USC beat Kansas 73-55 on Monday night to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994. “We knew that we were playing Sweet 16, Elite 8, quality games, Final Four-quality games, night in and night out and sometimes three and four times in a row.”

USC, the top seed in the Portland 3 Regional, last made it this far when USC great Cheryl Miller was the coach.

All-American JuJu Watkins, who has the third-most points by a freshman in NCAA history, will lead the Trojans against Baylor on Saturday night.

The Trojans and Bruins both hosted regionals and drew great crowds despite the games going up against each other — UCLA’s game tipped off at 5:30 p.m. PDT while USC began 90 minutes later.

UCLA had 7,839 at Pauley Pavilion while USC drew 8,941 at the Galen Center.

“It’s a Monday night in LA. We have students who probably have homework and school in the morning, so just to know that people really support us throughout their busy schedule,” said Watkins, who scored 28 points. “They could really be doing anything else, but they decided to be here so we’re grateful for them.”

UCLA and Colorado will also be in action Saturday in the Albany 2 Regional.

The second-seeded Bruins get defending national champion LSU while No. 5 seed Colorado faces No. 1 seed Iowa and Clark.

The Buffaloes did not host a regional but advanced with a 63-50 victory at Kansas State on Sunday.

Oregon State and Stanford will begin play on Friday.

The third-seeded Beavers are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019. They face No. 2 Notre Dame in the Albany 1 Regional.

Stanford, with senior All-American Cameron Brink, is the second seed in the Portland 4 Regional and will take on No. 3 North Carolina State.

The Cardinal, under Hall of Fame coach Tara Vanderveer, were the conference standard-bearer with 27 regular-season and 15 conference tournament titles.

It was also Vanderveer who started a group chat among the conference’s other coaches last week wishing them luck.

According to Gottlieb, Vanderveer’s message was, “I know we’re going our separate ways, but let’s appreciate what we’ve all done together and let’s all send it out the best we can.”

Close said the group chat showed how far the conference has come.

“I just thought, you know, it used to be Stanford and the 11 dwarfs, and now look at it, and who is the first person to champion that balance? Tara,” Close said. “I just think it really has been a very special experience. We’ve built this together taking off our institutional hats and choosing to grow the game, and grow the conference was more important and that was a real big honor to be a part of.”


AP Sports Writer Beth Harris contributed to this report.


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