So. No Stanford. All that stands between the Bears and the Final Four are the Georgia (sigh . . . Lady) Bulldogs, who finished third in the very deep SEC with a record of 12-4. Two things are clear:
1. The Bears got a break not having to face Stanford
2. Georgia is still an excellent team, easily the best Cal has faced in the tournament. Arguably, the best since back-to-back games against Stanford back in January!
That main reason is defense. If you watched Georgia take on Stanford, you might have focused on how crummy Stanford's offense looked when Chiney Ogwumike wasn't shooting. Well, that's probably not a coincidence. When Georgia is playing the way they want to play, it can be very, very difficult to score. Conversely, when things aren't going to well, Georgia can struggle to put the ball in the hoop. The question is if the Bears can either force Georgia into that type of a shooting slump, or break down their defense in a way that Stanford couldn't.
I don't need to tell you the stakes. It's the most important game in program history. But then again, so was the last one. And if they win, the next game will immediately assume the same title. Isn't it weird that March basketball can be both the most wonderful and stressful thing at the same time?
Players to Watch
Georgia is tough to preview in part because they are so balanced. Over the course of the season ten players averaged ten minutes/game or more. And surprisingly, that hasn't drastically changed in the tournament. Georgia still plays deep into the bench, but the minutes given to those bench players is more like 4-5 minutes rather than 10-15. So let's focus on those starters
Jasmine Hassell, 6'2'' senior forward: Hassell leads Georgia in scoring mostly because she has a shooting percentage about 10% higher than the rest of her teammates. She's also really active on the offensive glass, and while we're all used to that not being a big issue, Hassell getting 2nd chance baskets is something the Bears will have to watch out for.
Jasmine James, 5'9'' senior point guard: Probably the key player for the Bulldogs. She's prone to low-efficiency games, but also runs the offense. Typically not turnover prone, but if Cal's guards can harry her it could make a big difference.
Shacobla Barbee, 5'10'' freshman wing: She has gradually worked her way into the lineup, but the 4 star recruit has been averaging double digit scoring over the last eight games of the season along with solid work on the glass. She's also the leading ball thief on a team that excels at forcing turnovers.
Anne Marie Armstrong, 6'3'' senior forward/guard: She'll likely guard one of Cal's bigs on defense, but on offense she's another guard who mostly specializes as Georgia's only strong 3 point shooting threat. She's Georgia's best shot blocker, but hopefully will be less effective than LSU's bigs were in that regard.
Tiaria Griffin, 5'7'' freshman guard: A freshman who has been playing major minutes down the stretch. She's been a consistently low impact offensive player, so I'm guessing that her impact is felt mostly on defense, which obviously isn't going to show up much in the individual statistics. We'll see how capable she is against Boyd and Clarendon.
Khaalidah Miller, 5'9'' junior guard: For reasons I'm not entirely clear on, (probably defensive issues) Miller has seen a significant decline in playing time down the stretch. She reached double figures in scoring 12 times in Georgia's first 23 games, then never again in their last 11 games, seeing about 14 minutes a game in the tournament so far. She's a hot-and-cold shooter who hasn't been given enough minutes lately as Georgia's first off the bench to get hot.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
On paper? This looks like a brilliant match up. Cal has a solid defense and a brilliant offense. Georgia has a solid offense and a brilliant defense. Cal outscored their opponents by about .191 points per possession. Georgia outscored theirs by .182. That's about one one hundredth of an advantage for our Bears! It's worth noting that Cal played a mildly more difficult schedule. We've reached the point of the season when we split the tiniest of hairs.
I wouldn't classify Georgia as a slow team, but their pace is hardly gazelle like either. They're Colorado-esque in that regard, and in truth the Buffs are a pretty decent comp for the Bulldogs in other ways.
Georgia's biggest advantage over the Bears is turnover margin. Although Georgia does force a ton of turnovers, they didn't have much success against Stanford (unless, you know, the Cardinal were just accidentally throwing the ball out of bounds) so I'd be pretty surprised if Cal turnovers became a major part of the story tonight. For what it's worth, Georgia coach Andy Landers has videos out teaching the full court press. It's his thing. I didn't see much of it against Stanford, but that doesn't mean it won't come out against the Bears. If it does, I look forward to watching Brittany Boyd sprint through it.
Cal's biggest advantage, as always, is rebounding, but it's not the overwhelming advantage it often can be. Georgia rebounds remarkably well for a team that's not particularly tall. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears dominate the glass on pure strength and athleticism, but I wouldn't count on it.
Keys To The Game
Keep running, running, running: Transition basketball turned the game in Cal's favor against LSU. It might even be more critical against Georgia, because the Bulldogs will likely play better half court defense. I have no clue exactly how much faster the Bears might be, but I do feel comfortable saying that there's an advantage there over nearly every team in the country. It's a great way to get the other team in foul trouble, and the Bears clearly thrive on it.
Lock down Jasmine Hassell, especially on the offensive glass: If I'm Lindsay Gottlieb, I tell Talia Caldwell that she's going to neutralize Georgia's best offensive player. Talia is quietly Cal's best interior defender, and even more quietly, perhaps a key reason that Gennifer Brandon is a rebounding monster. I want Talia keeping Hassell from getting easy looks, and I want Talia using her size to clear Hassell out on every rebound, allowing Gen to pull the board down.
Destroy them on the glass: A perennial key to the game, making a return because it's something the Bears haven't quite done in their last two games. Georgia is about as good a rebounding team as South Florida, who actually pulled down more boards than Cal did (though it might have been because they were chasing down long rebounds on their 20 missed 3 pointers). Since I like being repetitive: Rebounding defines this team - let's let it carry us to New Orleans.
New Oreleans. Final Four. A dream is within reach.