NCAA Women's Bracket 2011: Elite Eight Begins In Dayton, Spokane

After an outstanding performance against the third-seeded UCLA Bruins in the second round, the 11th-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs head to the Sweet Sixteen with hopes of making a first-ever Final Four run. Joining Gonzaga in Spokane for the West Regional this weekend are the seventh-seeded Louisville Cardinals, the fifth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, and the Pac-10 champion and top seed Stanford Cardinal. Gonzaga tips off their second consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen against Louisville at 6 p.m. PST at Spokane Arena, just a few minutes from campus. To keep up with NCAA women's tournament scores, check our SBN Seattle women's tournament storystream. For more on women's college basketball around the country, visit SBN's women's basketball site Swish Appeal.

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NCAA Women's Tournament 2011: Gonzaga Vs. Stanford Elite Eight Primer

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have had a magical run to the Elite Eight, capitalizing on their home court advantage to set up a chance to make more history as the first 11 seed to make a NCAA women's Final Four.

But standing in the way is a top-seeded Stanford Cardinal team that is well-accustomed to playing at this time of year and boasts among the most versatile rosters in the nation, with four stars that demand attention and are more than capable of taking over a game in their own way.

But perhaps the most important key for Gonzaga to beat Stanford is competing on the boards: Stanford's Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike as well as Kayla Pedersen are all capable of hitting the boards hard and Pedersen might be a particularly dangerous matchup as her skill allows her to play multiple positions around the floor. While the Ogwumike sisters were big down the stretch, Pedersen's play throughout was particularly huge.

Stanford Survives North Carolina - Swish Appeal
So Stanford guard Jeanette Pohlen, is in a little, minor, just a teensy little bit, tiniest bit of a slump. It’s very small, so small we should hardly mention it. So small R didn’t even want me to mention it here in the blog because then we might be responsible for jinxing her for the rest of the tournament. She was 1-9 shooting for the night, yet she was 80% percent from the free throw line and she made 3 out of 4 free throws in the final 30 seconds. She is ice, ice baby. In fact, the other coach called a timeout to try and "ice" her first attempts and she was all like, huh, free throws I can do. So yeah the final score was 72-65 but it was a much, much closer game.

Kayla Pedersen had her usual "quiet night" scoring 15, yet was 5 for 13 from the floor, and only 2-6 from three-point land. Fifteen points is nothing to sneeze at, but Stanford’s shooting percentage is waaay down, shooting 36% for the game, and only 19% from beyond the arc. Gotta step that up for these next few games.

Pedersen's the type of glue player that could be a huge factor against a relatively undersized Gonzaga team even if Pohlen remains cold.

Of course, all eyes will be on Courtney Vandersloot for Gonzaga, who is having an outstanding tournament, but she's going to need help from the post players for her team to contend with Stanford and that will include Kayla Standish, but will also require a strong team rebounding effort. And as SBN's Rule of Tree has observed, the Cardinal have to worry about those "other" Bulldogs as well.

Stanford Must Contend With Vandersloot, Pro-Gonzaga Crowd - Rule Of Tree
While Vandersloot makes Gonzago go, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer says the Bulldogs are a lot more than just one player. Kayla Standish, Katelan Redmon, and Janelle Bekkering all average double figures for the Zags.Two out of three ESPN experts picked Stanford to advance to its fourth consecutive Final Four, but Graham Hays thinks Gonzaga has a good chance to crash the party in Indianapolis.

One of the keys for those supporting players is for them to be efficient as passers in addition to rebounders and scorers. Vandersloot is obviously going to get a lot of attention and has clearly shown the ability to handle it, but that attention also means that it helps immensely when other players can be competent with the ball.

A big x-factor that can't be ignored here is just the fact that Gonzaga is playing at home - that's been a tough environment for opponents during the tournament and both teams are playing much better than they were in November.

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NCAA Women's Bracket 2011: Elite Eight Kicks Off With Notre Dame Vs. Tennessee In Dayton

In a tournament that began with little madness, the 4 p.m. PST (ESPN/ESPN3) matchup between the second-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish and top-seeded Tennessee Lady Vols is probably expected.

Yet even without any true madness, this game should be exciting, as described by David Hooper of SBN's Rocky Top Talk in his preview of the game.

Elite Eight: Tennessee Lady Vols vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Rocky Top Talk
The Dayton region of the women's NCAA tournament has been all about the chalk so far, with the only "upsets" being 6 seed Oklahoma's victory over 3 seed Miami and 10 seed Temple's win over 7 seed Arizona State. (To be honest, I don't really consider either game an upset.) With such stability, it makes total sense that the two best teams in the region would be locking horns for the chance to go to the Final Four in Indianapolis. This has the promise of being the best game of the entire region, as Tennessee brings depth, offense, and intensity against Notre Dame's precision and balance.

On Saturday against Ohio State, the big contributor for Tennessee was Kelley Cain, who got her first start of the tournament.

NCAA Women's Tournament 2011: Kelley Cain's Strong Start Helps Tennessee To Elite Eight - Swish Appeal
"Coach lit a fire under our butts in the locker room and we stepped up our defense and made them play faster than they wanted," said Cain. "I think that was the main thing, getting up in them and making them play at a different level."

In a span of four minutes, Cain scored six points and had a block that helped Tennessee overtake Ohio State and have a four point lead with 13:06 to play in the second half. That spurt not only helped Tennessee get the lead, it catapulted them to go to another level as they started running laps around Ohio State like they were Kevin Harvick at a NASCAR race.

However, the key to this game might be defense: Notre Dame is a team that held Gonzaga Bulldogs point guard Courtney Vandersloot to 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting earlier this year and stifled the Oklahoma Sooners' dynamic guard combo on Saturday to advance. SBN's Swish Appeal has been following Notre Dame all year and contributor M. Robinson summarized their defensive accomplishments on Saturday well.

NCAA Women's Bracket 2011: Can Notre Dame’s Defense Help Pull Off An Elite Eight Upset Of Tennessee? - Swish Appeal
They held Oklahoma to 27 percent shooting in the first half, 1-10 from the three point line (10%) and to only 2 offensive rebounds for the entire game. Couple that with what they did to the star players of Oklahoma as Danielle Robinson, who is one of the nation's elite point guards to just 12 points while committing 7 turnovers. Whitney Hand who is Oklahoma's emotional leader was held to just 2-10 shooting (20%), 6 points and 0-5 from the three point line as Notre Dame's Brittany Mallory truly suffocated Hand with her defense. And freshman sensation Aaryn Ellenberg was held to just 9 points, well beneath her average of 16.2.

"I think they don't get enough credit for their defense because their offense is so salty," said Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale after Saturday's loss. "But defensively they're very good."

Notre Dame's defense might be a bit overrated and could be the difference in this game if they win. But Tennessee is easily among the most athletic, big, and talented teams in the country and beating them will be no cake walk.

To join a game thread, visit SBN's Rocky Top Talk. For more on the Elite Eight participants, visit SBN's Swish Appeal.

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NCAA Women's Bracket 2011: North Carolina Will Try To Outrun Healthy Stanford In Sweet Sixteen

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The Stanford Cardinal will play a late game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at 8:30 p.m. PST on ESPN.

Earlier in the week, there might have been concerns about the Stanford Cardinal's health with two freshmen rotation players dinged up.

However, after some precautionary measures Stanford appears to have a clean enough bill of health, as described previously by SBN's Swish Appeal.

Stanford Women's Basketball Team's Got Bounce - Swish Appeal
Chiney Ogwumike injured her left (non-shooting hand) pinkie (got dislocated in Monday's game) and was back to practice on Wednesday. Toni Kokenis is listed with an ankle injury and is being kept out of practice but expected to play on Saturday.

Although that certainly hampers the North Carolina Tar Heels' hopes at winning tonight's 8:30 p.m PST Sweet Sixteen game at Spokane Arena, it probably won't change their strategy either.

As North Carolina showed against Gonzaga in the first round of last year's tournament, they are a big team but they love to run and they have the depth to do so.

NCAA Women's Tournament 2011: Can UNC's "Fun Basketball" Take Down Stanford? - Swish Appeal
This edition of the North Carolina women's team is tailor made for Coach Hatchell's style of play. DeGraffenreid puts the throttle down, with Lucas as an outstanding three point threat. Breland is a strong inside/outside presence, and there is size and rebounding in Chay Shegog and Waltiea Rolle. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt plays aggressive shut down defense. Nine players play at least 15 minutes per game on the team.

Although people continue to think of Stanford as a deliberate, plodding team that would be hesitant to get in a track meet with a team like UNC that likes to force turnovers and push the tempo, reality is that Stanford has shown the ability to run with teams this season and they also have depth and versatility to keep rotating people in and out.

The big question for UNC will be how they contend with Stanford on the offensive boards - while the two teams rebounded at an equal percentage entering the tournament, UNC has allowed their opponents more opportunities a game which they'll have to figure out to win.

For more on North Carolina, see Swish Appeal's interview with UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell. For more on Stanford, check out why Jeanette Pohlen is so important to Stanford.

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NCAA Women's Bracket 2011: Sweet 16 Bracket Predictions

At least on the surface, the 11-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs' path to the Final Four probably looks a lot easier than it did based on what most people predicted prior to the 2011 NCAA women's basketball tournament.

In arguably the biggest upset of the tournament thus far, the seventh-seeded Louisville Cardinal knocked off the second-seeded Xavier Musketeers 85-75 yesterday to advance to the Sweet Sixteen against Gonzaga at 6 p.m. PST on Saturday. After Xavier beat Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen last season, the opportunity to avoid twin towers Amber Harris and Ta'shia Phillips this season has to be seen as a relief - Xavier's height makes for a much tougher matchup than Louisville.

Although Cardinals freshman phenom Shoni Schimmel has been called the female Jimmer Fredette after her 33-point performance in last night's upset, Gonzaga has a few things working in their favor: Louisville will have to find a way to stop Bulldogs point guard Courtney Vandersloot, Gonzaga's core players are tournament-tested upperclassmen at this point, and Schimmel is prone to have ups and downs as a freshman. If Gonzaga gets the type of fan support that at Spokane Arena that they did on campus, a first-ever Elite Eight trip seems even more likely now than it would have against Xavier.

If things go as one might expect on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. PST between the fifth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels and top-seeded Stanford Cardinal, Gonzaga could get a second chance this season against this season's Pac-10 champion. The singular Cardinal beat the Bulldogs 84-78 back in November at McCarthey Athletic Center. But with combination of an even more exuberant March Madness crowd backing Gonzaga and a couple of Cardinal freshmen nursing injuries the outcome could be different this time.

As reported by San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Tom FitzGerald, both Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Chiney Ogwumike and classmate Toni Kokenis underwent precautionary x-rays yesterday after sustaining injuries in their 75-49 win over St. John's with great fan support in their own right during their sub-regional at Maples Pavilion.

Ogwumike injured a finger in a scramble for a loose ball midway through the first half of Monday night's 75-49 NCAA Tournament win over St. John's. She didn't sit out long and finished with 13 points.

Kokenis left with an injury to her left ankle late in the first half. She soon departed to the locker room. When she returned to the bench during the second half, she received a big hand from the crowd, but she was done for the night.

Although Kokenis appears to be at greater risk of missing time, it's also worth noting that she only played a minor role in Stanford's early-season win, which was the third game of the season for each team. Gonzaga is much-improved at this point in the season, but Stanford hadn't at all developed the chemistry they have working for them since demoralizing Xavier and beating the UConn Huskies in December. So although both teams have improved dramatically and Kokenis' role has increased since November, Stanford is also so talented that losing a reserve guard can't be seen as a crippling loss.

However, beyond Gonzaga's circumstances that give them a chance to make a Cinderella run at the Final Four, the rest of the tournament should be pretty tame.

For more on the four teams in Spokane, visit Swish Appeal's pre-tournament capsules:

Time to Dance: Gonzaga, West Coast

Time to Dance: Louisville

Time to Dance: North Carolina

Time to Dance: Stanford, Pac-10


Sweet Sixteen Predictions:

Dayton region

#1 Tennessee Lady Vols def. #4 Ohio State Buckeyes

#2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish def. #6 Oklahoma Sooners

Philadelphia

#1 Connecticut Huskies def. #5 Georgetown Hoyas

#3 DePaul Blue Demons def. #2 Duke Blue Devils (Duke's performance against Marist reinforced my previous prediction)

Dallas

#1 Baylor Lady Bears def. #5 Green Bay Phoenix

#2 Texas A&M Aggies def. #6 Georgia Bulldogs

Spokane

#1 Stanford def. #5 North Carolina

#11 Gonzaga def. #7 Louisville

Elite Eight Predictions

#2 Notre Dame def. #1 Tennessee (The Lady Vols are peaking at the right time, but I'm sticking to my original prediction)

#1 UConn def. #3 DePaul

#1 Baylor def. #2 TAMU (This should be another good one, but the Griner factor should decide it)

#1 Stanford def. #11 Gonzaga (Stanford just has so much talent in the post that it's hard to pick against them)

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