- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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On its face, it looks as if Stanford and California, which went toe-to-toe all season in the Pac-12 race, are destined for the collision that the bracket laid out last week.
Unless the SEC can stop them, that is.
After harrowing moments for the Cardinal and Bears in the first two rounds, they are just a win away from the rubber match in their season series. But tough, physical and athletic SEC teams that put a value on pressure defense, forcing turnovers and taking opponents out of their comfort zone await both.
Let's look at three X factors for each matchup.
No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 4 Georgia
ESPN, 9 p.m. ET, Saturday
Defending the paint: Whichever team does it best is probably the one that moves on to the Elite Eight. Stanford has Chiney Ogwumike under the basket, drawing defenders, cleaning up the glass, coming up with double-doubles even on off nights. A big night by Ogwumike equals a long night for the Bulldogs. But Georgia has its own weapon inside in 6-foot-2 senior post Jasmine Hassell, the first-team All-SEC pick who is leading the Lady Dogs in scoring and rebounding at 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. Hassell has led Georgia in scoring in 10 of the past 14 games.
Under pressure: The book on Stanford is that the Cardinal are vulnerable when it comes to high-pressure defensive teams that force turnovers. Enter Georgia. The Bulldogs rank seventh in the nation in turnover margin (6.2), while the Cardinal rank seventh nationally in turnovers per game (12.0). Unstoppable force versus immovable object? Andy Landers' team survived a season in the brutal SEC, where defensive-minded teams thrive, and it will challenge the Cardinal by playing in-your-jersey pressure defense, hoping to rattle ball handlers and create offense off its efforts. Stanford took a while to adjust to Tulsa's pressure before settling in the second half, and the Cardinal's size can mitigate a lot of teams' efforts to pressure them.
3-point redux?: Both teams are coming off the best 3-point shooting efforts of the season in their second-round games. Georgia, not known for being a perimeter scoring team, hit a season-high 12 3-pointers Monday against Iowa State, the most 3-pointers attempted (30) and made in the Bulldogs' long NCAA tournament history. Stanford, meanwhile, rained a dozen 3-pointers against the Wolverines Tuesday night. Joslyn Tinkle, Sara James and Bonnie Samuelson all hit big shots, taking the scoring pressure off Ogwumike. That's a much taller task on the road and in an unfamiliar gym, but a hot-shooting Stanford team becomes a much bigger title threat because teams have to choose what they will defend. Pack the paint and risk a barrage from the perimeter, get out and defend and Ogwumike will eat you for lunch. Michigan went with a zone to lock down Ogwumike on Tuesday, and it didn't work out so well; she still ended up with a double-double.
No. 2 California vs. No. 6 LSU
ESPN2, 11:30 p.m. ET, Saturday
Getting reacquainted: The second-seeded Bears are not such an unfamiliar foe to LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, who spent three years coaching against Layshia Clarendon, Talia Caldwell and Gennifer Brandon when she was at UCLA. Cal, meanwhile, will get some familiar looks as Caldwell's LSU team plays the same aggressive defense and matchup zone that she employed with the Bruins. Two of the game's best young coaches, making their Sweet 16 debuts, should be very interesting.
Free points at the stripe: Cal has danced with trouble all season because of its struggles from the free throw line. Monday against South Florida, it was almost the Bears' undoing. They missed 8 of 11 free throws down the stretch but made up for it by hitting 8 of 10 in overtime to seal the win. Cal is shooting 61.6 percent from the line this season, but that hasn't stopped it from the first 30-win season in school history. Will it keep the Bears from a Final Four?
Long trip, late start: After playing the first two rounds at home, the Lady Tigers most certainly will be out of their comfort zone in Spokane, unlike their SEC compatriots Georgia, which will have been in Spokane for 10 days by the time the Lady Dogs' game against Stanford tips. Not only is there a long plane trip involved to Eastern Washington from Baton Rouge, but an 11:30 p.m. ET tip is a tough draw. Without much depth -- LSU had just seven active players in the second round -- it could prove rough on the legs and the body clocks.
Pac-12 rivals Stanford and Cal seem headed for a rubber match -- if they can get past physical, athletic and defense-first SEC teams Georgia and LSU.