SPOKANE, Wash. — Maybe the Spokane Regional should just be renamed the Pac-12-Southeastern Conference challenge.
West Coast powers Stanford and California on one side. Southern stalwarts Georgia and Louisiana State on the other.
Since the brackets for the NCAA Women’s Tournament were released, it’s been expected that No. 1 seed Stanford and No. 2 seed California would meet for the third time this season to decide a spot in the Final Four. It’s up to fourth-seeded Georgia and sixth-seeded LSU to try to keep that from happening.
Stanford (33-2) and Georgia (27-6) will meet in the first regional final tonight, followed by LSU (22-11) and California (30-3).
Stanford is two wins away from becoming the first program to reach six consecutive Final Fours, although Connecticut also has a chance to match that streak this season. Georgia and LSU have been to multiple Final Fours in their respective histories. California is the relative newcomer, having never before reached the regional finals.
Stanford is coming off one of its more impressive victories of the season, a 73-40 rout of Michigan in the second round. It was an emphatic statement after the Cardinal struggled in the Pac-12 Conference tournament title game and didn’t look overly dominant in a first-round win over No. 16 seed Tulsa. But the types of challenges the Cardinal have faced – from Colorado and UCLA in the conference tournament to Tulsa and Michigan – have helped them get ready for Georgia.
“Georgia’s a very talented team. They’re quick, they’re athletic, and they definitely like to push the pace,” Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike said. “I think that presents a huge challenge for us because we have been working all season long on making sure our pace is efficient. So I think that will be a great test.”
Georgia reached the round of 16 by outlasting Iowa State in the second round thanks to uncharacteristic success hitting from the perimeter. Georgia’s strength is on the inside with post Jasmine Hassell, yet the Lady Bulldogs knocked down 12 3-pointers – all of them needed– in holding off the Cyclones. Guard Jasmine James, who made three 3-pointers in the first 32 games, made a pair against Iowa State. The 12 3s were the most in any NCAA game in Georgia history.
The Lady Bulldogs’ reward was an extended stay in Spokane. They chose not to go back home to Georgia after trying to do the cross-country travel in 2010 and seeing it fail miserably. The Lady Bulldogs won their first two games in Tempe, Ariz., went home, then returned to Sacramento, Calif., for the regional semifinals, where they were routed by Stanford 73-36.
Coach Andy Landers joked that his players spent the extra time in Eastern Washington getting registered to vote and taking up residency, but said the decision was smart and beneficial.
“It’s been very productive, both academically, basketball-wise and from a rest standpoint. All of those things are important,” Landers said.
The matchup between the Cardinal and Lady Bulldogs also features 1,564 combined career victories at Stanford and Georgia between Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer and Landers. This is also the 20th trip to the round of 16 for both coaches at their respective schools.
“I’m looking at all the things that they’re doing, I really like them,” VanDerveer said. “I’m going to steal (from) them for next year.”
California has already set a number of school records this year, whether it was the most single-season victories or claiming a share of the Pac-12 regular season title for the first time. Now the Golden Bears are one game shy of reaching the round of eight for the first time. They’ve only been in the round of 16 once previously, back in 2009 when they were knocked out by Connecticut 77-53.
The Golden Bears got past Fresno State in their opener, then blew a late lead against South Florida before rallying for an overtime win in the second round. Because getting this far in the tournament is such a rare occurrence at Cal, coach Lindsay Gottlieb is letting her players embrace and enjoy their success <0x2014> as long as they don’t lose focus.
“We’re having so much fun in this awesome experience, we’re not ready to stop playing yet,” guard Layshia Clarendon said. “I think it’s more of a motivating factor. We have broken a lot of records this season, we made history, Cal history. So to go to the Elite Eight, we’re one game from it. It’s not this far off thing that we can’t reach.”
LSU getting to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2008 was stunning considering how short-handed the Lady Tigers were against No. 3 seed Penn State. Granted, LSU was playing at home, but had just seven healthy players in its 71-66 upset of Penn State, led by Adrienne Webb’s career-high 29 points. Even though 2008 was the last time getting to the round of 16, LSU has been highly successful at this point of the tournament, winning seven consecutive regional semifinal matchups.
The Tigers still aren’t sure if they’ll have guard Jeanne Kenney available. Kenney suffered a concussion in the first-round win over Wisconsin-Green Bay and did not play against Penn State. LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said she won’t ask Kenney to play any differently if she’s able to go.
“That’s how she plays this game,” Caldwell said. “She plays it with a high level of intensity, she’s a competitor and she will sacrifice her body.”