The Carolina women's basketball team ended the regular season in a rather rough way, losing their last four to tumble down the ACC standings. They've turned things around, however, first by plowing through the ACC tournament before falling to Duke in the finals, and then by making it to the Sweet Sixteen as a five seed by beating Fresno State and upsetting Kentucky. All of that pales before their task in Spokane this evening – knocking off Stanford, the number two team in the country.
The Lady Cardinal come into this game on the longest winning streak in the country at 25 games. This includes the 71-59 win over Connecticut that ended their historic winning streak. Only one of those wins was in the single digits, a nine-point victory over top-ten UCLA in the Pac-10 championships. But don't hold that against them; they beat the Bruins by 14 and 26 in their regular season matchups. So what chance do the Tar Heels have?
It all lies in Carolina's defense. UNC's offense has been less than stellar, and produced a dismal 0.88 points per possession in conference play. Contrast that with Stanford's 1.16 points per possession in Pac-10 games; this a team of scorers. They have Kayla Pederson, a 6'4" forward who's in the top ten in career scoring in the history of the program, and she's only the third highest scorer on the team this season. She's surpassed by Jeanette Pohlen, a three-point specialist at guard and Nnemkadi Ogwumike, her partner in the paint. Just getting them to miss their shots won't be enough, as the Cardinal are excellent rebounders. They'll have to deny them the opportunity to shoot in the first pace. Here's where UNC's skill at creating turnovers will be key. In Stanfords two losses they committed 17 and 18 turnovers, respectively. Carolina gets a steal about once every ten times down the court, and a block one every fifteen.
On the offensive end of things, UNC is going to have to get as many second chances as possible, becuase they're not great shooters, and Stanford's defense is brutally tough. The Tar Heels have been on a tear of late, scoring at least 78 points in their last six wins. They'll also have to keep their own miscues to a minimum, as turnovers have been a problem for the team this season. Luckily the haven't been for Cetera DeGraffenreid, UNC's senior point guard, who stands at sixth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. She's joined in the backcourt by Italee Lucas, one of the sparks of the late-season resurgence who is coming of two consecutive 22-point performances. The Heels also have the size to battle the Cardinal inside, with Jessica Breland at 6'3" having been just a monster in the paint over the last few weeks. Al three are seniors, so like Stanford's stars this is their last bite at the apple, so expect everything to be left on the floor.
This only the second tournament meeting between the two teams, both of whom have coaches with over 800 wins. The first was also a Sweet Sixteen game on the west coast, this one in 1995, the year after UNC's national championship run. (It was also a game I was supposed to attend, before budgetary constraints got in the way.) Even more surprising is the fact that Stanford, despite a current streak of three straight Final Fours, hasn't won a championship since 1992. This is one of those games that is should be played at a much higher level than its place in the Sweet Sixteen would indicate, there will be an incredible amount of senior talent on both sides of the ball, and no one want their season to end. The odds are heavily stacked in Stanford's favor, but UNC has the strength to pull this one out. It's just going to take a lot of things going their way.