SPOKANE, Wash. - Maybe the Spokane Regional should just be renamed the Pac-12 vs. SEC challenge. West Coast powers Stanford and California on one side. Southern stalwarts Georgia and LSU 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. "That presents a huge challenge for us because we have been working all season long on making sure our pace is efficient."
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 three-pointers - all of them needed - in holding off the Cyclones. Guard Jasmine James, who made three treys in the first 32 games, made a pair against Iowa State. The 12 threes were the most in any NCAA game in Georgia history.
The matchup between the Cardinal and Bulldogs also features 1,564 combined career victories at Stanford and Georgia between Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer and the Bulldogs' Andy Landers. This is also the 20th trip to the round of 16 for both coaches at their respective schools.
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.
"We're having so much fun in this awesome experience, we're not ready to stop playing yet," Cal guard Layshia Clarendon said.
LSU had just seven healthy players in its 71-66 upset of Penn State, led by Adrienne Webb's career-high 29 points.
LSU isn't sure if guard Jeanne Kenney will be available. Kenney suffered a concussion in the first-round win over Wisconsin-Green Bay and hasn't played since.
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - Geno Auriemma hasn't lost too many NCAA tournament games in the state of Connecticut.
But the Hall of Fame coach was hard-pressed to remember a harder regional than the one his Huskies will face this weekend in Bridgeport. UConn opens up in the semifinals against Maryland today. Second-seeded Kentucky will face Elena Delle Donne and No. 6 Delaware in the other game.
"There are four great teams, lots of marquee names, lots of interesting side stories, and that leads to a great environment," said Auriemma, whose team has won 41 of its past 42 NCAA games in the state, losing only to Duke in 2006 in the regional final.
If Delaware and UConn do make it through, it would set up an intriguing finals matchup. Delle Donne originally signed with UConn before leaving after a short stay to return home to Delaware.
"I haven't allowed myself to think about that," Delle Donne said. "All year our team has said just focus on the next game. If we were thinking about UConn, we'd overlook Kentucky."
Delle Donne is one of three reigning conference players of the year still around in Bridgeport. UConn doesn't have one.
"I think this is one of the more difficult first-round games of the regionals. And the other game, yeah, you got really good players on every team," Auriemma said. "I'm sure every region has got their own, but I don't know that anyone has more than what exists here. Kentucky's back again and Maryland's in again."
The Huskies have already played the Terrapins earlier this season, beating Maryland by 15 points in the Jimmy V Classic in December. Two-time ACC player of the year Alyssa Thomas had just six points in that game. UConn star Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played five minutes before suffering a concussion.
"With (Mosqueda-Lewis) in the game, it's going to make it a lot more difficult for them to defend us and make our offense run a little bit smoother," said UConn center Stefanie Dolson, who has practiced sparingly while resting injuries in her right ankle and left foot.
Thomas has averaged 28.5 points in the tournament so far.
"She thrives on a competitive stage," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, a former Arizona player.
The first game features two stars in Delle Donne and two-time SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies. Kentucky is happy a flu bug that ran through the team in the first two rounds has run its course.
"I'm hopeful it won't be an issue," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Mathies, who had a stomach bug, matched her career high with 34 points in the second-round win over Dayton.