SPOKANE, Wash. — Stanford and California were expected to settle the Spokane Regional.
Nobody told Georgia.
“Georgia basketball has a lot of pride within it and a lot of history behind it,” Georgia guard Jasmine James said. “To just be able to make those steps to now be in the Elite Eight and to be in the game to be able to compete to go to the Final Four is definitely a great place to be.”
Instead of the final chapter of a Stanford-California trilogy, the regional final tonight will have the Golden Bears (31-3) and the Lady Bulldogs (28-6), with Georgia looking for its first Final Four trip since 1999.
The Lady Bulldogs stunned Stanford 61-59 in the regional semifinals Saturday night, while California, the Cardinal’s Pac-12 foe, beat Louisiana State 73-63 to reach the regional finals for the first time in school history.
For California and second-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb, this is new.
Now they have a shot at being the first team from the western U.S. not named Stanford to reach the Final Four since Long Beach State in 1988.
During that 25-year span, eight different programs in the West have reached the regional finals.
But whether it was Long Beach State, Washington, Southern California, UCLA, Colorado, Utah, Arizona State or Gonzaga, they all came up one game short from getting to the Final Four.
California gets the next chance to end that drought and perhaps help change the perception that women’s basketball out West is not just Stanford.
“I’ve been in conversations with my East Coast friends who joked with us last year when we played a good game against Notre Dame, ‘Wow, you guys are pretty good. We didn’t know there was basketball other than Stanford,’ ” Gottlieb said Sunday.
“So it is, I think, a continual process of saying there is good basketball on the West Coast. “There are other good teams, but we’re happy at this point to be the ones that people are looking at.”
When the Golden Bears lost in the Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinals to UCLA, the belief was they would probably still get a No. 2 seed in the tournament but likely get shipped away from Spokane where Stanford was almost assured of the No. 1 seed.
Once California was placed in the same region, the assumption was the Cardinal and Bears would see each other for a third time this season in the regional final after the teams split their two regular season games – including Cal ending Stanford’s 81-game conference win streak back in January.
While there could be a bit of disappointment not to see Stanford in the regional final, the Bears were respectful of Georgia on Sunday.
“Survive and advance. We’re just happy we’re playing tomorrow,” Cal center Talia Caldwell said. “Both are great teams. So we want to play whoever is next. It doesn’t matter who it was going to be.”
Because the setting is new for Cal, Gottlieb has allowed her players to embrace the success. They are a naturally fun group, who celebrate everything; even stopping and getting smoothies on their way to the Spokane Arena for Sunday’s practice.
“I think it’s really important not to be so focused on the next thing that you don’t really take time to look around and enjoy the moment,” Cal’s Layshia Clarendon said.
Getting this far in the tournament is another step for coach Andy Landers in rebuilding his program.
While there was still success for most of the past decade – 20-win seasons, NCAA trips – the long-time coach felt his program slipped.
His senior class, highlighted by starters James, Jasmine Hassell and Anne Marie Armstrong, are largely responsible for learning and understanding what improvements needed to be made.
Combined with the impact of freshmen Tiaria Griffin and Shacobia Barbee, the result is a surprising tournament run.
This is the 11th trip to the regional finals for Georgia and its first since losing to LSU across the state in Seattle in 2004.
“The pieces that had made Georgia basketball special had slipped. Those were the things that had broken, the work ethic, the attitude, the camaraderie among the team. And I knew this and I knew that it was going to be hard,” Landers said.
“When you let something big get down on its knees, and Georgia basketball to us is big, it had stumbled a little bit, it’s hard to get that giant back up. I knew it was going to be hard, I knew you couldn’t do it in a day, you couldn’t do it in a month, couldn’t do it in a year.”
Georgia upset Stanford because of a superb defensive effort in the second half.
They contained Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike and held her to eight points in the second half after 18 in the first, and the Lady Bulldogs kept any of Stanford’s supporting cast from dominating. Georgia was the sixth team this season to hold Stanford under 60 points.
The defense Landers has raved about throughout the tournament will be tested by the Golden Bears, who used their speed in transition to pull away from LSU in the second half.
‘’They bring it. They got the athleticism, they’re high energy, they’re going to play hard,” Landers said of Cal. “They’re good in transition, they’re good in the half court. They have all the parts.”