Lady Utes’ streak reaches five in a row

With a roster comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores, the U women’s basketball team has had to work all season to find its groove.

The Utes (13-4, 2-0 MWC) struggled at times early in the year, but with five straight wins now under their belts they appear to be playing their best basketball at the right time. After an up-and-down non-conference season that included some difficult losses along with some good wins, the verdict is still out on just how good this team can be. The Utes managed impressive victories against the likes of TCU (9-5) and Weber State (11-4) during non-conference play, but back-to-back losses to Gonzaga (15-2) and Oklahoma (9-5) in late January left many wondering what went wrong.

The Utes nearly defeated No. 4 Michigan State (13-2) in the season opening tournament in Hawaii and also managed to hold a lead against No. 9 Stanford (12-2) for much of the second half in an early December contest, but they came up short in both games.

Thus far, the Utes have easily defeated every team they have faced that now has a losing record, but games against teams with winning records have been a different story-the Utes are 7-4 against teams that now boast winning records.

The U will need as many victories as possible during conference play if they hope to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee at the end of the year-something they fell short of last year.

Having won their last five, including two conference games against teams with winning records, the Utes appear to be on the right track.

“It’s been a really great confidence booster,” said the Utes’ junior forward Kim Smith. “To win five games in a row and to win the first two conference games by such large margins has been good for the team.”

The Utes defeated Colorado State in their conference opener by an 18-point margin and then routed Wyoming by the same margin two days later.

“As a team we’re coming together at the right time,” Smith said. “Our freshmen are stepping up and our team is peaking right when we should be.”

U head coach Elaine Elliott agreed with Smith. She acknowledged the difficulty of suffering back-to-back losses to Gonzaga and Oklahoma in late December, but also said her team has made the necessary changes to play well during conference games.

“We rebounded well from those losses [to Gonzaga and Oklahoma],” Elliott said. “We had lost our edge in practices and our kids realized that. I think we recognized that we wanted to play better and made some adjustments.”

Elliott said her team has recently started to find their rhythm during practices, which has resulted in better performances during games. She said the biggest impact of better practices could be seen in the two freshman centers, Deanne Hanchett and Jessica Perry.

“We’ve got two freshman kids at center,” Elliott said. “With every learning experience they are getting better.”

Named the starting center at the beginning of the year, Hanchett is averaging 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in just 22 minutes of playing time per contest.

Perry has recently upped her averages to 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds after six consecutive starts at the forward position. Although Perry is only averaging 17 minutes of playing time per contest, her post play in the last few weeks has been encouraging. Perry accumulated 10 points and nine rebounds in the Utes’ conference opener against Colorado State.

The Utes look to kept the winning streak alive as they head to Colorado Springs, Colo., this Thursday for a 7 p.m. game with Air Force (5-9, 0-1). Saturday afternoon the Utes face New Mexico (12-2, 1-0) in Albuquerque for a rematch of last year’s conference championship.

[email protected]