- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Not many style points were awarded for either of the Pac-12 semifinal games that took place at Staples Center on Friday afternoon.
Stanford earned its expected spot in the final -- where it hasn't lost since 2006 -- in a particularly unattractive way, shooting less than 30 percent but surviving a bruising battle with Arizona State 52-43.
Second-seeded Cal, meanwhile, got a lesson in just how happy Washington State was to be here. The Bears got pushed by the upstart Cougars -- who won their first conference tournament game ever two days ago -- from start to finish, and Cal ended up with a 64-49 win. The victory earns the Bears a rematch with Stanford in the final, the team that just beat them by 25 points at home Sunday.
"I don't get to enjoy it for 30 seconds before we talk about Stanford?" Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said through a smile, her team making its first trip to the conference tournament championship since the Bears met Stanford in the 2008 championship, in which they lost 56-35. "I certainly have some good film to look at from a week ago, and we will be better."
Neither finalist had a smooth offensive performance Friday or made many pretty plays. Instead, the teams had to grind it out and bang bodies against opponents they knew all too well.
Cal dominated the boards against Washington State to the tune of 49-16. But the Bears didn't take control until well into the second half, as the Cougars forced 25 turnovers.
The messy, physical game was knotted at 42 when Bears forward Gennifer Brandon, who finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds, broke the tie with a free throw. Cal went on to outscore the Cougars 17-7 down the stretch.
Washington State had never won a game in this tournament but put together two victories to reach the semifinals. Coach June Daugherty said her team might have run out of gas. But she also believes things have changed for her once-beleaguered program after this run.
"The Cougars are here," Daugherty said. "The reactions we've gotten, the text messages from kids who will be here next year who are really proud to be coming here. This is huge for us."
The Cardinal (30-1) survived another bruising battle against Arizona State. The Sun Devils (20-10) want opponents to play ugly. That it particularly true for Stanford. When the Cardinal play pretty basketball, they are usually winning big.
Disrupting the Cardinal offense with aggressive, in-your-face defense and knocking around the Ogwumike sisters in the paint to keep them off the block gives opponents the best chance to win.
The Sun Devils came close to pulling off the upset. After being down 29-15 at halftime, they pulled to within 44-38 with 1:03 left in the game.
Stanford shot a season-low 29.4 percent.
"We wanted to pressure the basketball and make it difficult for them to get the ball to the two sisters," said Arizona State interim coach Joseph Anders, who will be handing the program back over to Charli Turner Thorne next month. "We were able to do that and actually put their guards back on their heels."
It's not as if Stanford is the only team that has had difficulty with Arizona State. The Sun Devils held seven teams to more than 20 points below their average this season. Stanford was held to nearly 27 points below its average Friday.
But Stanford, which set a school record with its 27th consecutive victory, won despite scoring the second-lowest total in a winning effort in program history.
The Cardinal won despite shooting 4-of -26 from the floor in the second half.
They won despite a tough offensive day for anyone not named Ogwumike, Nneka and Chiney finishing with a combined 36 points and 25 rebounds. The rest of the lineup was 4-for-29.
But the Cardinal won because they owned the boards, outrebounding the Devils by a 48-28 margin.
And they won because they have played Arizona State so many times that they know the drill. Survival trumps style every time.
Stanford and Cal struggled but earned their places in the Pac-12 final.