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Hometown favorites 

by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

Any nervousness about selling enough tickets to the NCAA West Women's Regionals evaporated

when the Washington Huskies won their way into the regional, bringing with them fans from all over the state and region. Having the Huskies land in Spokane also gives the event the kind of home team excitement that may have been missing with a handful of teams from all corners of the country.

That's not to say there aren't some great teams and individual players set to descend on Spokane this weekend; it's just that now locals will have somebody to cheer for, too. The Huskies have been one of the great turnaround stories in all of college athletics this year. After going 8-22 last season, they won the Pac 10 regular season this year and beat both Old Dominion and Florida in Gainesville, Fla., to earn a berth in the Ladies Sweet 16. The team has been bolstered by young talent, like the Mendiola sisters, Giuliana and Gioconda, both freshmen from Orange County, Calif. Then there's Andrea Lalum, another freshman, from Bozeman, Mont. Loree Payne, a sophomore who hit the game winner against Old Dominion, is also from Montana -- Havre to be exact.

The Huskies are peaking at the right time, but standing in their way is the mighty Oklahoma Sooners team, which has been ranked in the Top 10 throughout the season. The team is led by junior Stacey Dales, a Canadian who played for her homeland's Olympic team last fall in Sydney. Chosen as a first-team All-American, Dales' per game stat line is impressive: 16.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 7.6 assists.

On the other side of the bracket, Duke plays Southwest Missouri State (they like to be called SMS). While this may sound like a David and Goliath matchup, SMS features the greatest scorer in the history of women's college basketball, Jackie Stiles. Also a first-team All-American, Stiles scored 49 points in a game this season. And she can score when it counts, as she proved with 32 points in the game against Rutgers that won her team a spot in Spokane. Duke, which has built a tradition similar to the men's program in recent years, has won 30 games this year and is led by the ACC Player of the Year, Georgia Schweitzer.

The NCAA Women's West Regionals start at 7 pm, Saturday, March 24, at the Spokane Arena with Washington vs. Oklahoma. Duke vs. SMS follows at 9 pm. The two winners meet on Monday, March 26, at 7 pm to determine the West's representative to the Women's Final Four. Ticket packages for all three games are $19-$39. Call: 325-SEAT.

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