STANFORD -- A year ago, guard Lili Thompson was filling out NCAA brackets and watching games on television like many women's basketball fans.

Sunday, Stanford is counting on the freshman when the second-seeded Cardinal (31-3) faces No. 3 Penn State in the Sweet 16 at Maples Pavilion.

Top-seeded South Carolina plays No. 4 North Carolina in the other regional semifinal. The winners will meet Tuesday night with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

"It's kind of surreal," Thompson said Saturday.

She's not alone. Thompson is part of a five-member freshman class that is expected to keep the Stanford program afloat once star Chiney Ogwumike and two other seniors depart at the end of the season.

"There's going to be a lot on them," coach Tara VanDerveer said of the young players.

Thompson, in particular, has taken on a big responsibility this season, starting 30 of 34 games. The 5-foot-7 dynamo with a long, braided ponytail is the team's third-leading scorer, averaging 8.1 points per game.

Ogwumike -- the prospective top overall pick in next month's WNBA draft -- is the only Cardinal averaging in double figures at 26.6 points per game.

The Stanford scoring sheet doesn't fool Penn State coach Coquese Washington or her Big Ten champion Nittany Lions (24-7).

"They don't win all those games with only one player," Washington said. "Part of the reason Chiney is able to do the things she does is because of the players around her."


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Ogwumike would be the first to agree with that analysis of Stanford, which is appearing in its seventh consecutive Sweet 16. The Cardinal has more depth than in recent years.

The team also has more quickness with its starting guards from Texas. Thompson has helped junior point guard Amber Orrange of Houston with handling the ball.

"It takes a lot of pressure off," Orrange said.

VanDerveer gave careful consideration to fill the second guard spot this season, trying a variety of combinations in practice before settling on Thompson in the season's third game.

Thompson's confident shooting and dribbling won the day. So far, she has proved Stanford coaches made the right decision.

All the freshmen except Kailee Johnson have had at least one start this season. The 6-3 Johnson has nonetheless appeared in all but one game as a valued reserve.

The rest of the class includes forward Erica McCall and guards Karlie Samuelson and Briana Roberson.

"A group hasn't integrated so quickly as this group," junior forward Taylor Greenfield said of the freshmen.

They had the benefit of arriving on campus in the summer and participating in a 10-day team trip to Italy.

"I've never felt it has been so easy for everyone to mesh together," Greenfield added. "We needed the freshman. We wanted them to click right away."

None have clicked better than Thompson, who started playing for her dad's 4-year-old team in New Jersey when she was 3.

"I don't remember a time I haven't played," said Thompson, the youngest of six children. "Just having fun with it at all times, that allows you to keep going."

Greg and Tracy Thompson shuttled the family around the country as U.S. Army engineers. Lili (pronounced Lee Lee) played at Punahou High School in Honolulu before graduating from a school in Mansfield, Texas.

While living in Texas, Thompson played on the same AAU basketball team as Olivia and Erica Ogwumike, the sisters of the Cardinal's star.

While Chiney Ogwumike has the team's biggest personality, Thompson is a close second. In her school bio, the guard says she wants to become U.S. president some day.

For now, she's present on the court.

Battle of the Carolinas: Southeastern Conference champion South Carolina (29-4) fell to North Carolina 74-66 in a December nonconference game.

But neither team expects the result from three months ago to have a bearing on the Sweet 16 matchup at Maples Pavilion.

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley is well aware of what is needed to get past North Carolina (26-9) and into the Elite Eight for the second time in school history.

"What is most important is our post players probably being 15 of 23," Staley said.

Fortunately for South Carolina, 6-4 freshman center Alaina Coates isn't the same player from December.

"Mentally, I wasn't ready for the game," Coates said.

The Tar Heels have endured an emotional season as Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell stepped aside while being treated for leukemia. Hatchell, the third women's coach to win 900 games, is in remission and could return if North Carolina reaches the Final Four.

Andrew Calder, the associate head coach, spent 20 minutes on the phone with Hatchell on Saturday to plot strategy against South Carolina.

"She gives us bullet points and we play off those bullet points," said Calder, Hatchell's assistant for 28 years.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.

STANFORD REGIONAL
At Maples Pavilion
Sunday's games
No. 2 Stanford (31-3)
vs. No. 3 Penn State (24-7), 1:30 p.m. ESPN2
No. 1 South Carolina (29-4) vs. No. 4 North Carolina (26-9), 3:30 p.m. ESPN2
Tuesday's regional final
Stanford-Penn State winner vs. South Carolina-North Carolina winner, time TBD

HOW THEY GOT HERE
Stanford: Def. No. 15 seed South Dakota 81-62, def. No. 10 seed Florida State 63-44
Penn State: Def. No. 14 seed Wichita State 62-56, def.
No. 11 seed Florida 83-61
South Carolina: Def. No. 16 seed Cal State Northridge, 73-58; def. No. 9 seed Oregon State, 78-69.
North Carolina: Def. No. 13 seed Tennessee-Martin, 60-58; def. No. 5 Michigan State 62-53