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USC to meet upstart Oregon State

Despite the loss, Chiney Ogwumike scored 30 to tie the Pac-12's all-time scoring record. Steven Bisig/USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE -- Cynthia Cooper danced with her Southern California team in the locker room, celebrating the program's biggest win in nearly a decade, relishing in a joyously unfamiliar place.

Tara VanDerveer and Chiney Ogwumike, meanwhile, sat stoically in their own unfamiliar place.

Stanford will not win the Pac-12 tournament this year. The Cardinal will be on a flight headed home Sunday morning rather than on a bus bound for their annual coronation.

The Women of Troy took care of that with a gutty 72-68 win at KeyArena on Saturday night in the conference tournament semifinals. Southern Cal might also have taken care of Stanford's No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But that's probably the least of Stanford's worries. And certainly not USC's problem.

"All season long through ups and downs and bumps in the road, my team fought, and they persevered," Cooper said. "Through 40-minute games and tired muscles and tired minds and tired-of-Coach, they still worked hard and they deserve this win tonight."

USC (20-12), which has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2005, earned the right to take on No. 3 seed Oregon State in the championship game on Sunday night (ESPN/WatchESPN, 9 p.m. ET) with the conference's automatic bid on the line. USC is making its first appearance in the title game since 2009. Oregon State has never played in this game.

No matter what, the Pac-12 will have a new tournament champion for the first time since UCLA beat Stanford in the 2006 title game.

The Beavers, 70-60 winners over Washington State in the late semifinal, are the only one of the top three seeds standing after the early departures of top-seeded Stanford, No. 2 Cal and No. 4 Arizona State.

"It's interesting," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "The teams we saw when the brackets came out on Monday, the teams we expected to be facing, are not out there. I think it shows the parity in our conference. We say anything can happen. And it can.

"We are going to have to continue to prove something for a while. We are not a household name yet. That's the story of our team."

USC toppled Stanford for the first time since 2008 in impressive fashion, building a double-digit lead in the second half and then hanging on when the Cardinal made their inevitable run.

Stanford rallied from a 50-40 deficit to grab a 60-57 lead with a little more than five minutes to go and then watched USC senior Cassie Harberts -- who had never beaten Stanford during her career -- run off 10 straight points in the paint to give USC a 67-60 lead with 1:23 to go.

Stanford, scrambling to make up for what VanDerveer characterized as another "stagnant" offensive effort, twice cut the USC lead to two points in the final minute, but couldn't get the scores it needed to play for an eighth straight Pac-12 tournament title. Ogwumike missed a rushed 3-point attempt on the Cardinal's final possession and the Women of Troy swarmed at midcourt to rejoice.

"I don't know if you saw, but I was an emotional wreck out there," Harberts said. "I'm just so proud of my team. I've been working toward this for four years and I've just never seen a team that's given so much heart and never gave up. Even when they made a run, we knew we were going to come back and win the game."

While Harberts was the hero for her game-changing run, junior forward Alexyz Vaioletama finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and a lot of defensive work on Ogwumike.

On a night when Ogwumike tied Candice Wiggins for the Pac-12's all-time scoring record, she was forced into introspection rather than celebration.

"We played hard, but Coach told us before the game, that playing hard sometimes is not enough," said Ogwumike, who finished with 30 points, 21 rebounds and five blocked shots, but worked for them all against USC's persistent, physical double-teams. "You have to execute. I think we didn't execute as well as we could have."

Stanford has been struggling "about a month," VanDerveer said.

"Sometimes I think your strength is your weakness," VanDerveer said. "We go inside to Chiney and she has delivered for us so well. But we have to have other people stepping up, or just be offensive contributors. We are not moving the ball well. This has been something for us in the last month. We need to fix that."

USC put itself in a position to take advantage by being the aggressor.

Cooper said the plan was to put a body or two on Ogwumike before she ever got the ball. While Ogwumike labored much of the game to get free, she did not get enough help.

"I guarantee you she hasn't worked that hard all year long to get those numbers," Cooper said. "She's a phenomenal player. You can't shut her down, but you can make her life tough."

Oregon State got 20 points from Sydney Wiese and 16 from junior Ali Gibson, who hit five 3-pointers. The Beavers led from start to finish, but held off a late run by the upstart Cougars.

Not that anyone is more upstart in the Pac-12 than Oregon State, a team that had just two players on the roster when Rueck came back to coach at his alma mater in 2010.

"We are excited about what we've accomplished in a short time and that's the perspective we have to have about this," Rueck said.

It's difficult to know how this game -- heck, this entire Pac-12 tournament -- will be received east of the Rockies and among those determining the brackets in the next week. Stanford's overwhelming success in the conference has always been a double-edged sword. If the other teams close the gap, the Cardinal must be weak. If Stanford dominates, the Pac-12 must be weak. Either way, the Pac-12 has been stuck in less-than status. But that might finally be changing thanks to the exposure of the Pac-12 Network and an obvious influx of talent across the league.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said earlier in the day to a group of reporters that he would like to see the conference get to a point where it can boast both a number of elite teams and depth. That seems to be what has transpired here on a rainy Seattle weekend.

Taking the long view, a Stanford-less final might be a good thing for the Pac-12 going forward. But maybe not the best-case scenario for the Cardinal in the short term.

"I think we should be a No. 1 seed," VanDerveer said. "But the committee is going to do what they are going to do. I just want this to help us.

"Losing a game is not the worst thing."

Cooper said she believes it would be "unfair" to penalize the Cardinal for not winning the tournament. And she thinks her team has earned its spot no matter the outcome on Sunday night.

"I hope the NCAA and all watching understand that the Pac-12 is a powerful conference and every game -- there is such parity in the conference -- is a battle," Cooper said. "We just beat a very good Stanford team and it demonstrates our growth. It doesn't demonstrate a weakness in Stanford. And it demonstrates the strength of our conference.

"For me, personally, I hope they said, 'USC is in the [NCAA] tournament.' But we are going to try to take care of business tomorrow."