Trial by fire

The U women’s basketball team knew they had three proven players when the season started. What they didn’t know was how good the other nine players would be.

They knew that there would be six freshman and three sophomores, but that’s about it.

The early season schedule included two top 25 teams in the Utes’ first three games. With only three upperclassmen on the team, U head coach Elaine Elliott was forced to give valuable playing time to young, unproven players in the hopes that the experience on the floor would help them adjust to the college game.

Freshmen Jessica Perry and Deanne Hanchett are the two underclassmen who have born the brunt of the burden. Hanchett has started every game this year for the Utes at center. Despite some problems with shooting in the low post, her contribution has been invaluable. Hanchett is currently averaging 8.6 points and 4.4 rebounds. She proved how far she has come when she led all scorers with 27 points last week against Air Force.

Perry looked awkward on the court in the first couple of games, and she wasn’t named a starter until six games into the season. Since then, her play has been better than expected. She is averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds at forward, but she wasn’t getting significant playing time until she was named starter. Perry proved that she wasn’t an awkward freshman anymore when she put up 22 points and 14 rebounds against Northern Colorado in her third start.

Other underclassmen are playing well, too. Freshman Marie Warner has seen some playing time at the shooting-guard slot. She leads the team in three-point field-goal shooting, making 43 percent of her attempts.

Sophomores Julie Wood, Camie Allen and Shauna Brouillard have also had opportunities, but up to this point they have been outshined by the freshmen.

Elliott started only one freshman in the first game-now two freshmen are starting. The underclassmen have proven their worth, but the team might need something extra from them before the season ends if the Utes hope to make an appearance in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Elliott said it was probably a “fair guess” that the development of the underclassmen will determine the outcome of the Utes’ season.

“That’s the wild card,” Elliott said. “If the younger kids get some consistency and make some things happen in the big games, we could have a strong finish. And if they don’t, we don’t know what might happen.”

Even though the two freshmen have had a few good performances against lower-quality teams, Elliott said she needs to see more from the underclassmen before she has confidence in their play.

“They’re improving and they’re learning.” Elliott said. “But they have not yet arrived. We need [an underclassmen] to have a breakthrough in a big game. Someone is going to have to make a big shot or play a big part in a game that matters. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Junior point guard Shona Thorburn is not so sure that the freshmen need to do anything differently. She thinks the youngsters just need to keep doing what they’re doing.

“Consistency is all we’re asking for from the freshmen,” Thorburn said. “They’re giving us that right now. Every once in a while one of the them will step up and have a big game, and that’s what we need from them right now.”

Thorburn said the underclassmen don’t need to do anything big for the Utes to be successful.

“We just need them to contribute,” Thorburn said. “We’re not asking them to score 20 points a game.

We just want them to go out hard, pull down some rebounds, hit some open shots and play some defense. That’s all we’re asking.”

Elliott insists that without improvement from the underclassmen in meaningful situations, the upperclassmen (Thorburn, Kim Smith and Lana Sitterud) will only be able to get the team so far.

“Our big three are always going to be good,” Elliott said. “They can win some games on their own and they’ve shown that already. But we’re going to need our younger kids to step up when it really matters to win some of the bigger games.”

The Utes will head to Provo to face archrival BYU Saturday at 3 p.m.

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