SEATTLE – If the case made by USC for an NCAA tournament bid wasn't strong enough already, the Trojans added an emphatic headline on Saturday night.
Knocking off the No. 4 team in the country two weeks before the NCAAs begin looks pretty good.
Cassie Harberts scored 10 straight points for USC in the final three minutes, and the Trojans held on in the closing seconds to upset No. 4 Stanford 72-68 in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.
USC will play for the championship and an automatic NCAA tournament bid on Sunday night against either Oregon State or Washington State. It will be the first time since the tournament's inception in 2002 that Stanford will not play in the championship game and will mark the Trojans' second appearance in the title game.
"I've been working toward this for four years and I've just never seen a team give so much heart and never gave up," Harberts said. "Even when they made a run, we knew we were going to come back and win."
USC matched the physical play of Stanford all night. They made life difficult on Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike, even though she finished with 30 points and 21 rebounds. And they answered when the Cardinal made the type of surge that has put others away in the past.
Harberts' scoring binge came after Stanford had rallied from a 10-point deficit to take a 60-57 lead with 5:06 remaining. Harberts finished with 13 points. Alexyz Vaioletama led USC (21-12) with 19 points.
Ariya Crook added 15 points for the Trojans and Vaioletama added 15 rebounds to go along with her scoring that was 11 points more than her season average.
"We just beat a very good Stanford team and it demonstrates our growth. It doesn't demonstrate a weakness in Stanford," USC coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said. "and the strength of our conference, it demonstrates the strength of the Pac-12."
Ogwumike led Stanford (29-3), but did not score in the final seven minutes. She moved into a tie as the Pac-12 career scoring leader in defeat, tying Candice Wiggins' mark of 2,629 points with a pair of free throws with 7:09 left.
But Ogwumike went scoreless the rest of the way and her teammates couldn't make up for the scoring absence. Lili Thompson had 13 points for the Cardinal.
"I missed a couple of shots. I was still being aggressive," Ogwumike said. "I honestly don't think there was a change. We just need to finish better."
Ogwumike appeared on the verge of taking the game over midway through the second half. She sparked Stanford's run from down 46-36. Her rebound putback with 12:55 left started a takeover. She converted a three-point play to get Stanford within seven, then blocked Crook's layup. The block eventually led to Amber Orrange's 3-pointer from the top of the key. Ogwumike added a pair of free throws and the Trojans lead was down to 50-48.
The run continued with six more points from Ogwumike and Stanford retook the lead on Thompson's driving layup for a 58-57 lead with 6:45 left. Free throws from Thompson pushed the lead to three.
But despite having not scored for nearly 5 minutes, the Trojans pulled even at 60 on Harberts' three-point play with 3:07 left. She scored 10 straight to give USC a 67-60 lead with another three-point play capping her run.
Thanks to poor free throw shooting, Stanford got within 68-66 on Thompson's basket with 27.6 seconds left. Crook hit two free throws for a 70-66 lead. Orrange hit two free throws of her own and Barrett split a pair for a 71-68 lead.
Instead of extending the game, Stanford tried to get look at a tying 3-pointer, but Ogwumike's rushed attempt was off and Barrett's free throw with 1 second left clinched the victory for USC.
Now they can end the entire tournament debate with one more win.
"I hope they say USC is in regardless of what happens tomorrow, but we're going to try and take care of business," Cooper-Dyke said.