STANFORD, Calif. -- And so it will be the Cardinals vs. the Cardinal in the Lexington Regional on Friday night.
Louisville vs. Stanford, two national power programs who have never faced one another, both playing their best basketball right now, primed for a Sweet 16 showdown that will put one of them within a win of the Final Four.
The Cinderellas are the story of this 2018 women's tournament, and they will no doubt have their day and their attention, but is there going to be any regional semifinal matchup with more knock-down, drag-out potential than this one?
Florida Gulf Coast walked into Maples Pavilion on Monday night and the Eagles did what they do. And then some. It would take a remarkable 47 3-point attempts -- and an even more remarkable 17 made 3s -- to make a run at knocking off the bigger, deeper Cardinal.
And it was not even close to enough.
Stanford advanced to its 11th straight regional semifinal with a 90-70 win to close a season on its home floor with a complete effort on both ends. The Cardinal (24-10) scored 33 points in the first quarter, owned a 52-18 advantage on the boards, had four players score in double-figures -- including 28 points from junior forward Alanna Smith -- and hit 9 of their 17 3-point attempts as a counterpunch to the Eagles' perimeter fireworks show.
"Our team had to work hard to beat them," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "You can't take everything away from a team like that. It's no fun to give up 17 3s, but they are that good. I think jumping on them was a good thing."
What comes next has the potential to be fascinating. Like Stanford, No. 1 seed Louisville is a team that shares the ball and scores from all over the floor. The Cardinals are aggressive on the boards. They have a bona-fide star in guard Asia Durr, and they will have the crowd behind them in a big way with just a 90-minute drive from Louisville to Lexington.
Interestingly, Stanford and Louisville were supposed to play on the opening weekend of the season in Columbus, Ohio, in a showcase that also featured Ohio State and Connecticut. But the television schedule changed, putting the game at 6 p.m. on the East Coast, and VanDerveer said no. Her team could not play that late and get her players back to class on Monday. Ohio State was willing to play the Cardinals in the late time slot and Stanford traded games -- for a matchup with top-ranked Connecticut, a game that Stanford ended up losing badly, 78-53.
That was also the game in which senior guard Brittney McPhee injured her foot. She would miss the next nine games as Stanford's young team struggled with a brutal schedule that included two games against Ohio State, Baylor, UConn and Tennessee.
Stanford was 6-6 in the non-conference season -- their worst start to a season in 19 years -- and fell out of the national rankings.
That shaky team bears little resemblance to the versatile, confident group that will head to Lexington to play for a shot at yet another Final Four, while some of those early-season opponents like Ohio State and Tennessee are already done and out of the brackets.
"It was never as desperate as our record and falling out of the rankings makes it sound," said McPhee, whose scrappy, poised play was a big reason the Cardinal were able to get back on track once the Pac-12 season started. "We did fall at the start of the season, but we always knew we could get it together and be a really good team that could make a deep run in the tournament.
"Even when we had our troubles, we stayed together and that was the key. We didn't start to blame others. We didn't start to look at other places. We just said, 'Hey, these are the things we are getting burned on during games, and we need to fix these.'"
Smith agreed that the Cardinal never doubted they would rebound from a tough start.
"You can't let the start of a season determine what you are going to do," she said. "Tara always tells us that every disappointment is a blessing and our blessings are coming to us, I think."
The emergence of freshman guard Kiana Williams, along with the key play off the bench from sophomore DiJonai Carrington, has propelled Stanford to a familiar place.
VanDerveer joked that she will take a little time to enjoy a weekend well-spent ... "and then I'll probably be up at 4 a.m. looking at video."
Florida Gulf Coast (31-5) leaves Stanford with an NCAA record, having made 431 3-pointers for the season, an all-time single-season mark. What the Eagles -- who don't have a player on the roster taller than 6-foot -- couldn't do against the bigger, stronger Cardinal was penetrate if the 3-point shots weren't there. And they simply couldn't compete on the boards.
"The biggest thing is we knew that they were going to make 3s and that was OK as long as they were hard threes and not wide-open shots by their best shooters," Smith said. "We were really well prepared."
Said Eagles senior China Dow, who hit six 3-pointers in the game to finish with 23 points: "I wish I would have grown overnight."
FGCU coach Karl Smesko wishes that Stanford hadn't made so many 3-pointers.
"We needed a day where they were 4-for-17, not 9-for-17, and we didn't get it," Smesko said. "Their offensive ball movement and efficiency and execution was outstanding. It was better than our defense today."
Stanford joins another Pac-12 party in the Sweet 16. Wins by Oregon and Oregon State on Sunday and UCLA and the Cardinal on Monday mean a quarter of the remaining field comes from the Pac-12. Over the past three seasons, the Pac-12 has won more NCAA tournament games than any other conference in the country.
"I think it's awesome," VanDerveer said.
Not unlike the matchup that awaits her team on Friday night.