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College basketball 2021-22: No. 3 Stanford, with CV grads Lexie and Lacie Hull, leads the way as Pac-12 looks to shine again

By Janie McCauley Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO – The Pacific-12 Conference won’t catch anyone by surprise anymore. Not with the way conference teams shined on the national stage yet again.

Coaches and players throughout the Pac-12 knew well before last spring’s NCAA Tournament that they had one of the most talented conferences in the country.

Then, Stanford – led by Central Valley alums Lexie and Lacie Hull – edged Arizona by a single point in the NCAA championship game, 54-53. The Pac-12 plans to represent in March again, with No. 3 Stanford leading the way in the program’s title defense and Oregon also in the AP Top 25 at No. 10. Three others are in the poll, too.

Stanford captured its first championship since 1992 and third ever last season, a remarkable finish to a season in which the Cardinal spent nearly 10 weeks away from campus given restrictions in Santa Clara County banning sporting events and practices because of COVID-19.

“Last year feels a little bit like a blur,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “But we got through a lot, and congratulations to the Pac-12 to have two teams in the championship game and six teams in the tournament. And we’re going to be greedy, go for more next year.”

Sixth-year Arizona coach Adia Barnes is challenging her team not to relish that runner-up finish given how good the Pac-12 still is and how hard it will be to get back there and triumph this time.

“It doesn’t feel any different,” she said. “I know that people are like, ‘Oh, it was a magical run,’ but it is what it is. That’s last year. The reality is we didn’t win. It was great to get there but our standards are just really high. Now that they’ve had a taste of success they’re just really hungry for more.”

Since leaving Gonzaga, coach Kelly Graves has guided Oregon to four straight Sweet 16 appearances. Now, Nyara Sabally – Oregon’s leading returner – can’t wait to play in front of home fans for the first time.

“They’ve never seen any of our team play live yet,” she said.

Sabally is surrounded by a mix of young players and transfers, so she will be counted upon to lead the way. The 6-foot-5 junior forward from Germany averaged team highs of 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds.

“We don’t have one player that’s played in front of the Duck fans,” Graves said.

Graves was in awe taking in the scenes around Pac-12 media day in San Francisco earlier this month.

“Just watching the student-athletes walking around and knowing how good that they are, it’s kind of daunting,” Graves said. “It’s going to be a heck of a year in the Pac-12.”

Five conference teams are in the AP preseason poll for a sixth straight season, leaving the Pac-12 tied for the most ranked teams with the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten. Stanford sits at No. 3, Oregon No. 10, Oregon State No. 14, UCLA at 20 and Arizona at 22.

“We know that if we’re able to survive and thrive in the Pac-12 grind that the NCAA Tournament will be, I’m not going to say a walk in the park, but a whole lot easier,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.

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