UNLV next in line for Utah women’s team in MWC Tourney

After a first-round victory in the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Wednesday night, the No. 2 seed U women’s basketball team (23-6) faces the No. 3 seed UNLV Rebels (22-6) Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

The game is significant not only for its implications on the MWC Tourney, but also because the last loss suffered by the Utes was to the Rebels just more than a week ago. In that game, UNLV came into the Huntsman Center and took away with them, in an overtime win, the Utes’ three year, 27-game home winning streak.

The devastating loss also prevented the U from winning the regular-season conference title outright, forcing it instead to share the title with New Mexico. The implications of that game didn’t end there, however, as the U also gave up its claim to the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney by losing that fateful game.

U head coach Elaine Elliott said after the loss that it was disappointing to be forced into sharing the regular-season title. According to Elliott, if the Utes are going to win, they will need a solid defensive output, but she also added that they wouldn’t be making any major changes in their overall game plan.

“It has to start with the defense,” Elliott said. “Our discussions have started there-we have to play better defensively, and then we have to execute better.”

“If we are solid and play our game, we should be able to keep them from getting too hot,” Elliott continued. “Last time, they had a really good game, and I think if we stick to our game plan and play our game, we should be able to get the job done.”

The game features three of the top players, not only in the conference, but in the entire region as well. Forwards Sherry McCracklin and Randee Henry of UNLV joined the U’s Kim Smith recently as three of the five Region 8 Kodak All-American Finalists. Among the three, they dominate almost every statistical category in the MWC. Along with UNLV guard Sheena Moore, the group makes up four of the top five scorers in the conference.

UNLV is the highest-scoring team in the MWC, and with three of the top five shooters in the conference sporting Rebel jerseys, the need for solid Ute defense will be at a premium.

More importantly, the Utes will need everything they can get from Smith, this year’s MWC Player of the Year. She stepped up big in the Utes’ first-round game against SDSU, scoring 28 points to go with her 11 rebounds.

Smith has been recovering from a mild shoulder injury, which until Thursday’s game had been limiting her mobility and affecting her shooting. Smith demonstrated clearly in the first round that her shoulder is alright, and opponents should take note.

“The San Diego State game was the first game in about three weeks that Kim’s shoulder wasn’t bothering her, and it showed in her shooting,” Elliott said. “She really stepped up for us, and we’re going to need her to play if we want to keep winning.”

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