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Oregon State-UCLA title game proof of Pac-12's new power

Oregon State won the Pac-12 regular-season title for the second year in a row and, after Saturday's dramatic win against Washington, will try to win its first conference tournament title Sunday night. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE -- These are indeed heady new days in Pac-12 women's basketball. The tournament championship will be played Sunday at Key Arena, and for only the second time in 14 years, Stanford won't be taking the floor.

In fact, on Saturday night, the Cardinal were already at home, braving the rain in the Bay Area rather than an opposing defense in the semifinals. And that has never happened.

After nearly two decades of having Tara VanDerveer's team serving as the standard-bearer, the name brand for an entire coast, the Pac-12's rebranding has been completed over four days in Seattle.

If it wasn't apparent when the Pac-12 scheduled its way to the No. 1 RPI in the country, or when three teams appeared in the selection committee's top 10 rankings, or when some of the top individual players made their way to multiple Pac-12 rosters in the past few years, it is apparent now.

Oregon State and UCLA will face off for the tournament title Sunday night after a pair of dramatic wins. Instead of being a shock, it actually makes complete sense.

"It's the No. 1 conference," said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck, whose team won the regular-season title for the second time in as many seasons and is looking for its first tournament title as a bookend.

The Cardinal finished in fourth place, but have the résumé and the RPI to likely earn a host seed when the NCAA tournament brackets are revealed next week. But at the moment, this isn't the Stanford powerhouse of yore.

And unlike in previous years, the rest of the conference is benefiting by comparison, rather than being penalized for it.

The Pac-12's television network has made it more appealing for West Coast talent to stay on the West Coast. The conference is stocked with top-line talent such as Washington's Kelsey Plum (the nation's leading scorer for much of the season), UCLA's Jordin Canada and Cal freshman Kristine Anigwe, not to mention the Oregon State core of Jamie Weisner, Sydney Wiese and Ruth Hamblin.

The ascension of programs such as Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State and Washington are showing potential recruits that there are more than one or two places to play and not only get seen, but compete for titles.

The result is a robust, deep conference that has been showcasing itself beautifully over the past few days.

Seven of the 10 tournament games have been decided by 10 points or fewer, five of them by fewer than six points. Two games have gone into overtime. The lower seed has won four games.

There has been the big upset: No. 2 seed Arizona State went home early after losing to 10th-seeded Cal. And fifth-seeded Washington eliminated No. 4 Stanford on Friday night, handing the Cardinal their first-ever quarterfinal loss.

Then in Saturday's semifinals, both games came down to the wire, pleasing the largest single-night crowd in tournament history.

UCLA survived in a 73-67 overtime win against Cal by forcing the extra period when Kari Korver hit a huge 3-pointer with 7.3 seconds to go in regulation after missing her previous 12 3-point attempts in the tournament. Then Oregon State clamped down defensively on a surging Washington team to win 57-55 in the all-Northwest nightcap, avoiding overtime when Plum's runner in the lane missed at the buzzer. The victory gave the Beavers their second berth to the title game in three years.

UCLA and Oregon State split their regular-season series, each winning at home.

"What a night. This is the perfect lead-in to the NCAA tournament," Rueck said. "Every team that makes it in is battle-tested and going to be ready for the NCAA tournament. There is no doubt."

At the end of this tournament, the Pac-12 isn't going to be the conference with the most teams in the field -- it will almost assuredly get five in. There was a time when it appeared it might be six or seven, but USC fell off and the devastating injury to Oregon star (and likely All-American) Jillian Alleyne sent the Ducks into a tailspin.

But it will be the conference with the five highest seeds. Four Pac-12 teams -- Oregon State, Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford -- look to be in good position to host. Washington, at the very least, also made a case with its strong tournament run.

And the Pac-12 champion will have earned it.

"I've not seen a year, impact-wise and quality-wins-wise, like the Pac-12 has had this year," said Washington coach Mike Neighbors, who originally proposed to his fellow conference coaches two years ago to boost their collective RPIs through scheduling. "I think it's going to be great for the tournament to finish the way it has."