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Currently an 8 seed in ESPN’s projection, Utah hopes to finish off No. 2 Stanford this time

Led by Cameron Brink, the Stanford Cardinal are on a tear. Meanwhile, the Utah Utes will be relying on their guard combo of Brynna Maxwell and Gianna Kneepkens to help them pull off the upset.

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Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

This game is a tale of two seasons.

It is the best of times for the Stanford Cardinal. They are No. 2 in the country, have won 11 games in a row, and are undefeated in the Pac-12. They have not missed a beat from last year’s national championship and are set up for a deep tournament run. It’s not the worst of times for the Utah Utes, but possibly the lukewarm-est of times? They are 14-7 overall, 5-4 in the Pac-12, and just outside the Top 25. They’re outperforming their preseason expectations but are still stuck in the middle of not just the conference but the NCAA at large. A victory against Stanford would not only give the Utes their biggest win of the season, but it would improve their status as a projected No. 8 seed in ESPN’s bracketology (updated Friday).

Stanford is on a roll and Cameron Brink is leading the charge. She has been sensational for the Cardinal, leading the team in both points (14.3) and rebounds (8.2) per game. Despite having a dominant forward, their guard play makes the them special. The trio of Haley Jones, Hannah Jump, and Lexie Hull gives them perimeter shooting, points in the paint, and drive-and-kick ability. Having both elite guards and a dominant big allows Stanford to play fast and small but still have a big on the floor to pick up boards and defend the rim. With a long winning streak, a title in hand, and an undefeated record in the conference, Stanford has all the confidence and experience possible, making a victory against them an enormous task.

Utah is up to the task. The Utes have already exceeded the 10th-place ranking Pac-12 coaches had for them during the preseason, are on a four-game winning streak, and barely lost the last time they faced Stanford earlier this season. Had they not had a fourth-quarter collapse, we’d be talking about Utah going for the season sweep against the Cardinal.

The Utes don’t need to win the rebounding battle, but they have to be better than the last time they played Stanford. In that game, Utah was outrebounded 41-28. That kind of disparity is just a bit too much to overcome against a top team.

Slowing down Brink is important, but the Utest also needs to work on what they do well, and that’s giving the ball to guards Brynna Maxwell and Gianna Kneepkens as much as possible and letting them do their thing. Together they average a combined 23.5 points per game. Kneepkens only played 21 minutes in the first matchup against the Cardinal, so she might be the X-factor if she gets more playing time on Friday night.

Game information:

Utah Utes (14-7, 5-4 Pac-12) vs. No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (19-3, 10-0 Pac-12)

When: Friday, Feb. 11 at 10 p.m. ET

Where: Maples Pavilion in Stanford, CA

How to watch/listen: Pac-12 Mountain/Varisty Network (Stanford)

Key to the matchup: Stanford will be looking to dominate the boards, get Brink going, and keep its guard trio active offensively. The Cardinal are doing well and will be looking to keep this winning streak going. Utah will also be trying to keep a winning streak going, but it will need to play a near-perfect game to do so. That means slowing down Brink, shooting well from three, and keeping turnovers to a minimum. You can’t give Stanford extra opportunities if you want to get the upset. If the Utes can keep up with the Cardinal offense, they should have an opportunity to win the game heading into the fourth quarter just like they had during the first encounter this season.