Women’s hoops tips-off season against No. 7 Stanford

The U women’s basketball team gets an early test as it hosts No. 7 Stanford tonight at 6 p.m. in the team’s season opener at the Huntsman Center.

The game marks the first in a series of difficult non-conference opponents for the Utes. Due to U head coach Elaine Elliott’s desire to play against top-quality opponents, the Utes have the nation’s 13th ranked non-conference schedule. In the coming weeks, the women will face five teams that made it to last year’s NCAA tournament.

The demanding path will begin with a game against a team that is not only ranked in the top 10, but is also one of the most powerful forces in women’s basketball. Led by head coach Tara VanDerveer, the third winningest active Division I head coach, the Cardinal women are one of college basketball’s true dynasties. Under VanDerveer’s direction, the Cardinal has appeared in 16 consecutive NCAA tournaments and won two national championships.

The Utes have never defeated Stanford in six attempts, but working in their favor is the fact that Elliott is 12-2 in home openers as a head coach. Knowing that her team is anxious to play a game that counts, Elliott said that her team is excited to face off against one of the best team’s in the country.

“As an opener, it doesn’t get much tougher,” Elliott said. “The bright side is that these kids want to be challenged, they want to play against someone good, and this is their chance.”

Elliott said that the opener will give her young team, which consists of nine underclassmen, a chance to find out how good they really are. Rather than beating up on a less talented team, the Utes will quickly be able to tell how far they have come.

“There are ways to get wins early in the season,” Elliott said. “But there’s no better lesson than playing against great talent and really getting a chance to learn what the next level is all about.”

While the Utes have several new faces-six freshmen in all-Elliott is encouraged by her team’s progress, and says that the Utes are coming together nicely.

“We are where we should be,” Elliott said. “I didn’t expect us to be any further than we are at this point of the year, so I think we’re ready to play.”

Junior forward Kim Smith, a two-time winner of the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year award, agrees with her coach’s assessment.

“We’re definitely ready to play,” Smith said.

Elliott said that a victory over the Cardinal would be huge for the program, and that it would show her the Utes might be better than she had thought.

“Success against a team of this caliber would make an awfully big statement,” Elliott said. “It would mean that we are better than we had imagined.”

While the Utes are finding out if they can compete with one of the best teams in college basketball, the Cardinal will try to find out if they can fill the shoes of Nicole Powell, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season. Powell, who graduated last spring, was one of the most dominant players in the PAC-10 last season, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Powell’s absence might give the Utes an opening to pull off the upset, but as the top women’s basketball program in the West, Stanford has the players to make up for any drop in production. Freshman guard Candice Wiggins scored 18 points in the Cardinal’s first exhibition game, and sophomore Kristen Newlin led the team in scoring in the Cardinal’s second exhibition game.

Elliott said that she is not surprised by Stanford’s ability to consistently remain one of the best teams around.

“Stanford is a staple in the top 10,” Elliott said.

“It doesn’t much matter who they lose-year in and year out, they’re always going to be good.”

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