(AP) — The Pac-12’s best team in the regular season will meet the league’s hottest squad for the conference tournament championship.
No. 1 seed Washington, which won the league by three games with a 15-3 record, takes on Oregon, winners of a season-high seven in a row, on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The preseason Pac-12 favorite Ducks are only the No. 6 seed but have gotten hot at the right time after dealing with multiple injuries, including the early-season loss of five-star freshman big man Bol Bol. Oregon doesn’t always hit on all cylinders on offense, but it has been suffocating on defense in making a push for the NCAA Tournament.
The Ducks had held six consecutive opponents to an average of 51.9 points per game before beating Arizona State 79-75 in overtime in a Pac-12 semifinal Friday night. Oregon, with a long, athletic lineup, showed off its elite rim protection with 10 blocked shots against the Sun Devils.
“I’m really happy for the guys,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman. “I blew some games during the year that I really regret. But the guys put up with me; we found a way here at the end.”
Washington (26-7) seems safe as an NCAA Tournament at-large team if it loses Saturday night, but the Ducks (22-12) figure to need the victory and accompanying automatic bid to advance to the NCAAs.
This matchup figures to be a defensive grind — just like the two regular-season meetings.
Washington won 61-56 on the road on Jan. 24; the Ducks returned the favor with a 55-47 victory in Seattle last Saturday to end the regular season.
“Washington will be a tough game,” Altman said. “We played them just a week ago. We played really good against them. I hope we can muster up the same kind of effort.”
Washington’s calling card all season has been its active 2-3 zone, which kicked into gear in the second half Friday night as the Huskies overcame Colorado 66-61.
Washington started the second half on a 16-2 run, allowed only one field goal for more than 11 minutes of the half, forced 18 turnovers in the game and held the Buffaloes to 32.1 percent shooting.
“That’s why we win — our defense all season,” said Washington coach Mike Hopkins.
Washington senior wing Matisse Thybulle, the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, enters the game tied with former Oregon State star Gary Payton for the most career steals (321) in conference history.
Huskies sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, has scored 38 points in two tournament games. Washington placed four players in double-figure points against Colorado, and two others scored at least seven.
“That’s a team,” Hopkins said.
“We had nine assists in the second half. That’s a team. And that’s how we’re going to beat people, that’s how we’re going to go far, is by team. These guys did it. They shared, they cared, and they played for each other. And that’s what it’s all about, and that’s why we won today.”
This is Washington’s first title game appearance since 2011, when Isaiah Thomas hit a step-back jumper at the buzzer to beat Arizona 77-75 in overtime. Oregon is in the Pac-12 championship game for the fifth time in seven seasons. The Ducks won in 2013 and 2016.
–Field Level Media