Fourth-place Washington has flown under the radar so far and, in case there are a few slips among the leaders, is ready to step up a level or two. Fifth-place Colorado, ranked No. 21, is also hanging around.
"This trip separates the girls from the women," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We have to play well both nights. USC is dangerous and UCLA plays a big lineup. At this point, I think we're talking about having five teams from our conference in the NCAA tournament. There is all the makings of a great tournament at the end of the season."
Stanford (11-1 in the Pac-12, 22-2 overall) has six games remaining on its regular season schedule, four on the road. The most important one is Friday's matchup with the Women of Troy (5-7, 8-15) because without a win at the Galen Center, Sunday's game in Pauley Pavilion against the Bruins (10-2, 20-3) won't mean as much.
The Cardinal faces its tightest race in many years. Should it continue to win, that 13th consecutive title becomes one of the hardest to obtain. Since losing at home to the Golden Bears (11-1, 21-2) on Jan. 13, Stanford has won eight consecutive games by an average margin of 16.6 points.
The Cardinal handed UCLA a 75-49 setback in its first game following the loss and then survived a scare from USC, winning 75-66 two days later.
There's no margin for error, no time to ease the foot off the pedal and nowhere to go but down. All eyes, as in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and places east and north, are focused on the road ahead.
"We feel like we have been scrapping and scraping every game," VanDerveer said. "We have to prepare for everybody."
Stanford enters the weekend with a few dings. Toni Kokenis remains questionable and Erica Payne is day-to-day.
Alex Green, who saw her first action in 15 months, could prove a factor down the stretch though she's not quite in basketball shape.
"She's doing well," VanDerveer said. "She loves to play defense. She's quick, she can get on the ball, she's aggressive, and she's strong. She's just not in great basketball shape and we're working to get her in shape as best we can."
Bonnie Samuelson scored a career-high 19 points in Stanford's win over Arizona State last Sunday and has reached double figures in two of her last three games.
"It was great for her to get her career high," VanDerveer said. "And for her, that wasn't even her shooting as well as she's capable of. She missed some open ones. But it was really great to see her get her rhythm going, get her shot going."
Samuelson owns the record for most 3-pointers within a 30-second point during a Stanford practice.
"She can make 20 3-pointers in 30 seconds," VanDerveer said. "That's pretty good. She has people passing her the ball but still, she doesn't miss."
Mikaela Ruef and Joslyn Tinkle each recorded a double-double last weekend, suggesting the Cardinal is beginning to find different sources of offensive production aside from National Player of the Year candidate Chiney Ogwumike.
"In the next month we'll need more from Taylor (Greenfield), Jasmine (Camp) and Tess (Picknell)," VanDerveer said.
Of course, there is always Ogwumike.
"Chiney is being talked about as player of the year, and looking at her stats, if you were to look at Chiney compared to Jayne Appel, compared to Nneka (Ogwumike), I think Chiney has been more consistent than anybody we've ever had," VanDerveer said. "I don't want to jinx her, but I don't even look at her stats. I go to the other people. Mikaela had a double-double, Jos had a double-double. It's a given that Chiney has one, and if she doesn't it's because I was able to take her out and get her some rest. She's also not in the top five in terms of minutes played in the conference games. The more rest we can get her the better, I feel."
Ogwumike has reached double figures in scoring in every game this season, something that her older sister Nneka (the WNBA Rookie of the Year) nearly accomplished last year. Nneka reached double figures in 35 of 36 games.
"Chiney is a really special player that comes out excited and motivated every single game," VanDerveer said. "It's more usual that someone would have an off night, and we can't afford that and I think Chiney knows that."
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