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Spokane Region Primer: Stanford on course to return to Final Four


State of the No. 1: Stanford.

After making it to the past three Final Fours, Stanford is aiming for more this year. Coach Tara VanDerveer thinks -- no, make that she knows -- her team is good enough to win a national championship, something the Cardinal hasn't done since 1992.

Stanford overcame a key psychological hurdle in December, beating UConn to end the Huskies' record winning streak and exacting a small measure of revenge for last year's championship loss, a game the Cardinal led at halftime.

Stanford's recent Final Four teams have had centerpiece stars: Candice Wiggins and Jayne Appel (who played on a severely injured ankle last April). But this team may have more balance: three Cardinal players are on the short lists for both the John R. Wooden award and Naismith trophy: Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, the Pac-10 Player of the Year. Adding depth is younger sister Chiney Ogwumike and freshman Toni Kokenis, who had a breakout game in the Pac-10 championship game.

The Cardinal's bracket holds danger: No. 2 seed Xavier almost upset Stanford in last year's Elite Eight matchup but were thwarted by Pohlen's coast-to-coast game winner; UCLA gave the Cardinal everything it could handle in the Pac-10 tournament final, Stanford faces a potential second-round matchup against Texas Tech, the only team other than UConn to beat Baylor's Brittney Griner.

Stanford has fond memories of Spokane: in 2008 Wiggins led her team from its regional in Eastern Washington to the Final Four, where the Cardinal hadn't been in 11 years. Stanford has been back every year since, yet hasn't come away with a title. VanDerveer wants that to change this year.

Bracket buster: Gonzaga.

Gonzaga is seeded 11th, fairly low for a team with just four losses, two coming to high seeds (Stanford and Notre Dame). But the Bulldogs will trade the unflattering seed for the opportunity to play at home. Senior point guard Courtney Vandersloot, a three-time WCC Player of the Year, is one of the most talented offensive players in the country. She's a big reason Gonzaga is the highest-scoring team in the nation. Playing at home, before an impassioned fan base, the Zags will be dangerous.

Suspect team: UCLA

UCLA had a terrific season under third-year coach Nikki Caldwell and were hoping for a No. 2 seed. It didn't happen: the Bruins were handed a No. 3 seed and a rough tournament road; they will be sent to Spokane where they could face a second-round matchup with well-supported host Gonzaga. The Bruins strong defense would be severely tested by the high-scoring Bulldogs.

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Game breaker: Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford

Freshman Ogwumike doesn't get the attention of either her older sister Nneka or the team seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen. But she's an integral part of Stanford's success this year. Chiney's smothering defense on UConn's Maya Moore in December was a difference maker. When Chiney was out with foul trouble in the first half against UCLA in the Pac-10 championship, the Cardinal struggled without her. Her energy, her springy rebounding and her improving offensive game gives Stanford one more threat.

Best player you've never heard of: Fresno State senior guard Jaleesa Ross.

Ross is the WAC player of the year. She's likes to bomb from the three-point line, and has challenged the NCAA three-point record. Against Louisiana Tech she hit five three pointers, scoring 23 points and was named the conference MVP.

The pressure's on: Xavier.

Even though Xavier has a dominating frontcourt of Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, and even though it has only lost two games this season, the Musketeers still have something to prove. Their revenge match at Stanford, after last-year's Elite Eight near miss, was abysmal -- the Musketeers lost by 37 points at Stanford in December. And they still carry the memory of Dee Dee Jernigan missing two easy lay ups that would have likely put Xavier in the Final Four.

Number to ponder: 62

That's the number of games in Stanford's home court winning streak, which doesn't bode well for first round opponent UC Davis, the Big West champions. The Aggies will take on the Cardinal four years to the day after Stanford's last loss at Maples Pavilion to Florida State.

The pick: Stanford.

The Cardinal has great chemistry, shares the ball and is led by the quiet senior power of Pohlen and Pedersen, and the dominance of the Ogwumike sisters. Expect the Cardinal to make what is becoming an annual trip to the Final Four.