SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Arizona State keeps referring to the "March mentality."
It's about doing all the little things down the stretch, wearing teams down and rising to a new level leading up to the NCAA Tournament -- and the Sun Devils (No. 7 ESPN/USA Today; No. 9 AP) certainly applied that approach Sunday, even with their star players in foul trouble.
Kirsten Thompson scored eight straight points in crunch time and had all 14 of her points in the second half, leading Arizona State past California (No. 24 ESPN/USA Today; No. 25 AP) 60-53 and into the Pac-10 tournament title game.
"That's what you call a gritty win. That's a March game," said coach Charli Turner Thorne, who earned win No. 200 at Arizona State. "What amazes me about this team is that different players keep stepping it up."
Emily Westerberg added 12 points before fouling out late in the Sun Devils' ninth straight win, a physical game filled with fouls that eventually tired out Cal. Thompson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, scored 10 of her points over the final 6:40.
"I think I just had a different mentality," Thompson said.
Arizona State advanced to its third title game in the event's six-year existence and will play Monday night against Stanford (No. 8 ESPN/USA Today; No. 7 AP) , which beat Southern California 67-52 in the second semifinal. The Cardinal won both meetings this season
against Arizona State -- 77-71 on Dec. 30 and 73-65 in overtime Jan.
The Sun Devils (28-3) beat the Golden Bears for the third time this season and fourth straight overall after victories of 16 and 12 points during the conference season. They have won 13 of the last 16 meetings in the series.
"You almost have to play a perfect game against them," Cal coach Joanne Boyle said.
Arizona State's turnover with 37.1 seconds left gave Cal the ball back for a final chance trailing by three, but Ashley Walker missed two contested lay-ins and Briann January sank two free throws on the other end with 13.8 seconds to play. Walker finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, three steals and a block.
"It's just getting that momentum," Walker said. "Down two, four, we couldn't get over that hump. It was very difficult to play from behind against Arizona State."
Devanei Hampton, the Pac-10 player of the year, fouled out in the closing minutes with 21 points and eight rebounds for Cal. The Bears (23-8) had their four-game winning streak snapped and missed an opportunity to match a school record for wins established in 1983-84. Now they will have to try to do it in the NCAA Tournament.
Hampton blocked a shot by Aubree Johnson with 10:05 remaining after Walker had pulled Cal within 40-39. Hampton picked up her fourth foul with 8:20 left, but came back with 6:19 to play.
"It was heartbreaking," Hampton said. "We wanted this so much."
The Sun Devils, who came in averaging just more than 75 points while allowing 59, had seven first-half steals and forced Cal into 22 turnovers. The Bears also played strong defense, switching to a pressure, trapping scheme midway through the first half that made it tough for Arizona State to get the ball up court.
"I think we did a tremendous job of staying in tune with each other and keeping that March mentality," Westerberg said. "I loved our aggressiveness in the second half. I think that's why we controlled the game in the final minutes."
Cal freshman Lauren Greif collided with Thompson at the 10:48 mark of the first half and was down for a couple of minutes before getting up and grabbing her throat. She returned after a short break.
Westerberg picked up her second foul with 5:39 left in the first half, then was whistled for her third with 18:16 left on an over-the-back call. She struggled early on offense, missing several short shots, but wound up going 6-for-12.
Westerberg's 12-footer with 11:14 to go left made it 40-35 and that was the first of three straight baskets she scored. She sat down with her fourth foul at the 7:41 mark and left for good with her fifth at 2:34.
The Bears managed only five shots in the opening eight minutes and committed eight turnovers during that stretch to fall behind 14-4.