Lady Utes open conference play

The U women’s basketball team opens conference play this Thursday night in the Huntsman Center with a 7 p.m. battle against Colorado State.

The Utes (11-4) will face a team that has followed a similar path to this point in the season. Like the Utes, the Rams (9-4) have played a difficult non-conference schedule and have had trouble against teams ranked in the top 25. Both teams lost four games during their non-conference slates, and both teams have their eyes set on the conference championship.

Perhaps where the two teams differ most is in the strength and maturity of their post presence. The Rams have seen success this season due mostly to the efforts of one of the best frontcourts in the conference, while the Utes have been forced to use freshmen and sophomores at the center position all season long. CSU juniors Melissa Dennett and Lindsay Thomas are two of the most dominant post players in the MWC and they have the stats to prove it.

Dennett’s averages of 14.6 points and eight rebounds are both good enough to rank her in the top five in the conference. Thomas’ average of 8.9 rebounds makes her the No. 4 rebounder in the MWC, while her scoring average of 13 points lands her in the top 10 in the conference. Shutting down the talented duo will be a key for the Utes, according to U head coach Elaine Elliott.

“Their two big kids have been playing really well,” Elliott said. “We have to neutralize them if we want to be successful.”

Elliott said stopping Dennett and Thomas during transitions would make a huge difference.

“We have to keep them from scoring,” Elliott said. “They have a few things they do to get to the basket early, and we have to stop that.”

Under the leadership of Dennett and Thomas, the Rams have emerged as not only the second-ranked scoring team in the MWC, but also one of the premier rebounding teams. The Rams currently lead the conference in rebounding margin with a +9.9 ratio, meaning the Rams typically gather about 10 more rebounds than their opponents. U junior Shona Thorburn, the MWC’s leader in assists, said the battle for rebounds would define the game.

“They have a really good post presence,” Thorburn said. “It should be a very physical game and I expect them to crash the boards hard.”

Impressed by the development of CSU’s squad over the last few years, Elliott hopes to have the Utes in a similar position a couple of years down the road.

“Colorado State has a nice team,” Elliott said. “They have a really good junior class and they’re maturing well. Their team is the kind of team we hope to be in a few years when our freshmen are juniors.”

With a stable of returning veterans, the Rams have an advantage over the Utes. Elliott’s squad contains nine underclassmen including six freshmen. The Rams have several young players as well, but they haven’t had to use them as much as the Utes. Thorburn, the Utes’ point guard, said that CSU’s experience could make the difference in the game if the Utes aren’t careful.

“They have lots of returning players who saw playing time last year,” Thorburn said. “So we can’t take anything for granted.”

The Utes will play another home game Saturday afternoon against Wyoming before embarking on a three-game road trip.

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Utah vs. Colorado St.Thursday, Jan. 13 7 p.m. at the Huntsman Center

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