Sin city hoops: Pac-12 puts on a show in conference tournament

Photo of a basketball hoop in a stadium
Ryan Chien/Senior Staff

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From Berkeley and Boulder to Tucson and Tempe, the Pac-12’s best and brightest descended upon Las Vegas for a thrilling week of basketball. The host city — and the games themselves — did not disappoint.

It started Wednesday, March 9, as the teams seeded five through 12 — aka the ones not destined for March Madness and in need of a miracle run to win the tournament — faced off for the right to battle the Pac-12’s cream of the crop in the top four seeds who received byes past the first day.

Despite these teams ranking closer to the bottom of the conference, they still performed on Day One. The tournament kicked off with perhaps the best game of the day between No. 8 Arizona State and No. 9 Stanford. The Sun Devils opened up a lead as large as 17 points, but the Cardinal mounted a furious comeback in the final few minutes of the match via a 16-1 run and capped off a 71-70 thriller with the most exhilarating play in basketball: a buzzer beater. 

The rest of Wednesday’s games featured no other upsets but they were fun in their own right. In-state rivals Oregon and Oregon State faced off in a high scoring contest that went in favor of the Ducks 86-72. Then Cal got its first and only taste of action in the tournament with a cold shooting night leading to a 59-66 loss to Washington State. 

This was the culmination of a disappointing year for the Bears that clinched their fourth 20 loss season in the past five campaigns. Finally, Utah and Washington met in a late night game of basketball to close off a non-stop day of hoops with an 82-70 victory for the Huskies.

On Thursday, the favorites came to play, with the top four seeds all seeing action, and predictably, they asserted their wills. The underdogs didn’t go down without a fight, however — Thursday’s opening game was another thriller involving Stanford as the Cardinal gave the top-seeded Wildcats everything they could handle in an 84-80 Arizona victory that pushed them to the brink.

USC faced a similar challenge against the upstart Huskies, led by the Pac-12’s leading scorer Terrell Brown Jr. Washington capitalized on stellar defense and forced several Trojan turnovers in the final minutes, giving them an opportunity for a potential game-winning shot in the dying seconds. But the Huskies missed a last-ditched floater, and USC nailed its free throws on the other end to escape with a 65-61 victory.

The other top seeds in UCLA and Colorado had more comfortable victories against Washington State and Oregon, respectively, who were missing their best player Will Richardson due to illness.

The real show began Friday, however, when the best teams in the conference finally faced off in the tournament semifinals. As the weekend hit in Vegas, the off-court atmosphere reflected these higher stakes.

After opening matchups with lesser attendance figures, the 18,000 capacity T-Mobile Arena was nearly filled to the brim with basketball fans, and thousands more waited outside in the Pac-12 fan plaza, where a giant screen and array of festivities lay.

The Wildcats faithful, in particular, showed up to support their team, with a sea of red and blue cheering on Arizona that made their matches feel like home games, with an energy that led Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd to dub the arena “McKale North.” 

The on court performances certainly lived up to the hype. First up was a battle between Colorado and Arizona with massive stakes. The Buffs were a March Madness bubble team with everything to play for; a win over the top seed would likely seal their spot in the dance while a loss would leave them on the outside looking in. Arizona, meanwhile, the No. 2 team in the country, was looking to avenge its loss to Colorado earlier this season, one of only three it took all year amid its 33 wins.

Colorado came out playing like its season depended on it — and indeed it did — making an incredible 16 3-pointers at a 50% clip. The more talented Wildcats, though, asserted themselves inside and ultimately pulled away in the final 10 minutes, getting their revenge with an 82-72 victory that sent Arizona to the championship game and ultimately left the Buffs out of March Madness.

The other semi-final game was no less intense. It was the battle for Los Angeles and the rubber match between USC and UCLA, who each had one victory over the other this season. It was a tight-scoring, back and forth affair, but the Bruins locked in in the second half to secure a 69-59 victory.

This set up a juggernaut final between UCLA, the pre-season favorite fresh off a miracle run to the final four, and Arizona, the upstart powerhouse who went from unranked before the season to one of the best teams in college basketball.

These were two deep, well-coached teams with star-studded rosters, and they both demonstrated their prowess Saturday evening with a beautiful 40 minutes of basketball. The Bruins opened up a 12-point lead, but the Wildcats would not go away, taking over the game in the second half en route to an 84-76 victory that secured a Pac-12 championship for Arizona.

It was a special week of basketball where Vegas and the Pac-12 put on a show, but perhaps the best part is that, for the upper echelon of the conference, it’s only just getting started. Arizona and UCLA may meet again and sit as No. 1 and No. 4 seeds, respectively, in March Madness. They’ll be joined in the big dance by seventh-seeded USC, and with their performances this week, it wouldn’t be a surprise for any of the Pac-12’s best to continue to find more magic in March. 

Benjamin Coleman covers men’s basketball and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].