- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- More than any game left in the NCAA bracket, Tuesday night's matchup between Stanford and North Carolina will provide an answer to the question: Just how much value is there in "Been there, done that"?
Fourth-seeded North Carolina, a team that starts three freshmen and two sophomores, will face off against second-seeded Stanford, a team led by a senior star, a fifth-year anchor and a junior point guard with more than 100 starts under her belt -- all of whom have had the experience of playing in at least one Final Four.
"Experience is great," said Stanford senior Chiney Ogwumike, who will be playing her final game at Maples Pavilion in the regional final. "But at the same time ... I don't think it is a big factor ... I trust our freshmen as much as I trust anyone else on this team. And it's great to have certain experiences, experiencing a loss or a big win. But at the end of the day, it's just playing another game and playing it to the best of your ability."
If there's common ground between two very different teams from opposite coasts, it might just be that.
"We just see this as another game," said North Carolina sophomore Xylina McDaniel. "Our freshmen are more experienced than a lot of upperclassmen. I'm not worried about experience. I know they are going to do everything they can do."
Or, as Tar Heels freshman center Stephanie Mavunga puts it, "Age is not anything but a number. It's not something we can take into consideration."
That doesn't mean it's completely irrelevant come tipoff time at a packed Maples Pavilion.
Does the disparate way in which the two teams have reached this point have anything to do with the experience of the players on the floor?
North Carolina opened the tournament with a two-point win against Tennessee-Martin, had a hard-fought 62-53 win over Michigan State and then had Sunday's meat-grinder upset over top-seeded South Carolina, a game in which the Gamecocks were within three points in the final two minutes.
Stanford, meanwhile, has been on something close to cruise control, winning its first three games by an average margin of 21 points.
Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, for one, would like to think experience matters, that she'd rather be one step short of the Elite Eight with players who are familiar with the experience than ones who are not.
"I do think having been here before, there is some value to it," VanDerveer said. "Experience is a very valuable teacher; if you learn the lesson. ... It isn't just another game."
North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said he doesn't consider his freshmen, in particular, to be "typical." For starters, they all have more than 35 college games under their belt. But there's more to it than that. This heralded group has played for plenty of titles.
"They have won gold medals [for USA Basketball], they've won championships in AAU," Calder said. "Their basketball IQ is very high. You could have a junior or a senior maybe not with the same basketball intelligence that they have."
And it will need to be high to match one of the game's most meticulously prepared coaching staffs and some of the country's headiest players. This game will match two very different styles -- an athletic, explosive North Carolina team that VanDerveer called "unpredictable in a dangerous way" and a disciplined Cardinal team that ran its triangle offense with precision and efficiency and executed a great defensive scout against Penn State on Sunday.
North Carolina freshman guard Diamond DeShields, who is battling ankle and knee injuries sustained Sunday, said she watched closely as the Cardinal took Penn State's leading scorer, Maggie Lucas, out of Sunday's game, limiting her to a season-low six points. DeShields is the Tar Heels' leading scorer and she's not been easily stopped by anyone this season.
"I saw what they did to Maggie and how it affected her play," DeShields said. "But Maggie and I are two different players and I think that I will be able to make that adjustment."
Stanford's lone freshman starter is guard Lili Thompson. She has seen her teammates with their Final Four pins tacked to their Final Four backpacks, heard their Final Four stories. And she admits she badly wants some of her own.
But she and her fellow freshmen -- there are five on the Cardinal's roster -- are plenty wide-eyed.
"We were pulling up here on the bus today and we looked at each other and said 'Guys, we are in the Elite Eight,'" Thompson said. "But I do feel like we are surrounded by this experience. I think the seniors might have a difficult time articulating it, but we can see it. We know that they know it's their last chance and that they want to do something special."
Cardinal forward Mikaela Ruef, the fifth-year senior who has experienced three Final Fours in a Stanford uniform, said she took it for granted last season that her team would go back again and Stanford's loss in the Sweet 16 was a bitter pill.
"That hurt a lot because I just figured that we were definitely going back to the Final Four," Ruef said. "It was a goal of mine [this year] that we're getting back to the Final Four."
And there will be a young, hungry team standing in the way.
"North Carolina is young, but they are athletic, very talented players and though they might not have tournament experience, that isn't always necessary, as you can see with Kentucky [on the men's side]," Ruef said. "They are a dangerous team and we will be ready for them."