The wait is over: Powerful U women open season tonight

The much-anticipated regular season for the No. 19 U women’s basketball team begins tonight with a first round WNIT game against Southeast Missouri State. The game will be played at the Huntsman Center at 7 p.m.

After an offseason filled with media hype and high individual expectations, the Utah women will finally have a chance to prove themselves on the court. The team has been anxious to get the season started, given the amount of preseason recognition it has been receiving.

Sophomore Kim Smith, who was voted last year’s conference Player of the Year and conference Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, is poised to take on the big dogs of college basketball after an offseason that included several months of training with the Canadian National Team. Smith has already been named to the preseason all conference team and her name appears on many watch lists for All-America honors. A poll on ESPN.com recently listed Smith as the fourth best slasher (described as a jump-shooter with moves to take it to the hole) in the country.

Fellow sophomore Shona Thorburn, another of Utah’s preseason all-conference nominees, is also a member of the Canadian National Team. She joins Smith to form one of the top scoring duos in the country.

As freshmen, Thorburn and Smith dominated the MWC by leading their team to a regular-season conference title and a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament. The Utes finished the season with an impressive overall record of 24-7, including 12-2 in conference play.

But an early loss to BYU in the second round of the conference tournament left the young squad feeling as if something had been left on the table. The good news is that Smith and Thorburn were only freshmen at the time, but the attitude around Utah now is that this year is going to be something special.

Returning all of its starters from last year and voted by almost every major preseason poll as a top 20 team in the country, the Utes will need to win early and often if they are to accomplish even a portion of what is expected.

Senior leadership from low post players Carley Marshall and Mandie Little will be critical in Utah’s ability to play its patented suffocating defense. Senior point guard Kelsy Stireman will be relied upon heavily for her superior ball-handling skills and her keen eye for finding the open player. Her strong defensive abilities will also play a key role.

Starters are not the Utes’ only strength, however, as they also have one of the deepest benches in the conference. Junior guard Lana Sitterud is one of the best three-point shooters in the conference, and her energy off the bench can provide a spark that can turn the momentum of a game. Sophomore Julie Wood and freshman Heidi Carlsen join the relentless Utah three point shooting attack.

Senior transfer Kim Hemenway looked like an adept ball-handler as a backup for Kelsy Stireman in the exhibition games, and freshman Shauna Brouillard gives the U another needed low-post presence.

With such a deep roster, it would seem that the Utes should have little trouble with its WNIT first-round opponent, Southeast Missouri State. But a second look yields a somewhat different picture.

Losing only one of its starters from last year, Southeast Missouri State keeps mostly intact a team that was 19-11 last year and that finished second in its conference. With the Utah women’s basketball program having never faced the Otahkians in its long history, the Utes have little clue what to expect. Relying mostly on game tape from last season, Utah will have no first-hand experience of how this group plays.

If Utah prevails in the first game, they will likely face No. 18 UC-Santa Barbara in the second round in what could be one of the team’s biggest games of the year.

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