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Spokane preview: Can defending champion Stanford do it again?

The Stanford Cardinal have won 20 in a row and seem poised to reach the Final Four. Can the Texas Longhorns, LSU Tigers, or Maryland Terrapins spoil the party?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament Semifinals Stanford vs Colorado Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

They are the defending champions, won this year’s Pac-12 outright and have a 28-3 record. Few teams enter the NCAA Tournament with the Stanford Cardinal’s confidence. The No. 2 ranked Cardinal haven’t lost since Dec. 21, which was against No. 1 South Carolina. It’s clear they are the cream of the crop in not just the Spokane Region but the NCAA Tournament in general.

Stanford has been phenomenal all season long. Led by Cameron Brink, Haley Jones and Lexie Hull, the Cardinal have won 20 games in a row and have looked nearly unbeatable during that stretch. They have the confidence and quality of defending champions, a balanced attack and veteran leadership. Stanford being a No. 1 seed was undoubtedly an easy decision for the NCAA committee to make. The Cardinal coming out of the Spokane Region will be a popular pick in many NCAA brackets. So, are they inevitable? Can anyone step up and challenge them for a spot in the Final Four?

Who are the challengers to Stanford?

The short answer is yes. In a win-or-go-home tournament, anything can happen. Players can get hot, favorites can get cold, and upsets are a part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so special.

Texas is the clear second favorite to come out of the Spokane Region. They had an impressive victory against Baylor to win the Big 12 Tournament and with a dominant big like Lauren Ebo and a guard trio of Rori Harmon, Aliyah Matharu, and Joanne Allen-Taylor, the Longhorns have a balanced attack that is tough to beat. They are well-coached, Texas-strong and coming off of a victory against a rival that they hadn’t beaten since 2017.

The Longhorns will be as confident as ever heading into the NCAA Tournament and are likely to make it to the Elite Eight facing off against Stanford for a trip to the Final Four. If they do, they’ll like their chances, given that they’ve already beaten Stanford this year 61-56. That game was a classic Texas game. Harmon led the team in scoring with 21 and Ebo grabbed six boards off the bench. We’ll see if the Longhorns can get the job done on the biggest stage.

The No. 3 seed in Spokane, the LSU Tigers, had a good first year under coach Kim Mulkey. They went 25-5, were second in the SEC, and had six wins against Top 25 teams. If they’re going to pull off an upset against the top seeds in the region, they’ll need Khayla Pointer to take them there. She’s the spark plug of the team, leading them in points and assists. The Tigers will go as far as she takes them, and so far, she’s taken them above and beyond all expectations.

No. 4 Maryland will look to play Cinderella in the Spokane Region, and with a player like Angel Reese on its side, it’ll have a chance to do so. The sophomore has been nothing short of sensational all season long, averaging 17.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. A big showing from her against Texas and Stanford could be enough to pull off upsets this spring.

Any lower-seeded teams to keep an eye on?

Predicting upsets is the hardest thing to do in the NCAA Tournament. We know there will be surprises, but who and why? Here are some of the teams to keep an eye on in the Spokane Region.

The Utah Utes are a dangerous team. They went 21-8 on the season, and they have a dynamic scoring guard in Gianna Kneepkens. They’ve had disappointing losses to top-seeded teams, but in a tournament situation, they can beat anyone if they get hot.

Ohio State went 23-6 and was a force in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have an excellent scoring duo in Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell and have beaten top teams like Maryland and Iowa. Can they pull off similar wins in Spokane?

Players to watch

Cameron Brink, Stanford: Flirts with a double-double every night and is a leader on this team

Rori Harmon, Texas: A walking bucket and one of the most efficient scorers in college

Gianna Kneepkens, Utah: Freshman leading the Utes in points

Angel Reese, Maryland: The best player on Maryland, leading the team in points and rebounds