Looking forward: Coming off a tough loss, U women say they regroup

The U women’s basketball team suffered a difficult loss at the hands of New Mexico last Sunday in the Huntsman Center. With the setback, the Utes fell to second place in the race for the Mountain West Conference regular-season title. Dating back to last season, it was the fourth time in a row the Utes (18-6, 7-2 MWC) have lost to the Lobos (19-3, 8-1 MWC).

With a firm grip on second place and a realization that the odds of winning the conference aren’t in their favor, the Utes are in a tough spot psychologically. They have been the dominant team in the MWC for years, and now their dominance has been challenged.

U head coach Elaine Elliott said the team has to remember that, despite New Mexico’s recent emergence as a power, this season could still end well. The Utes are only one game behind the Lobos in the conference race, and considering the fact that New Mexico already lost a game to UNLV, the race for the conference title is still wide open.

“We still have to keep them focused,” Elliott said. “The reality of the big picture is still quite positive and we made sure the kids understood that. Things can change very quickly in this league. We still have five more games left in conference and until we’re mathematically eliminated from winning [the conference title], nothing is set in stone.”

After the tough loss and the realization that the Lobos might just be a better team, the Utes were forced to consider whether they have they have a realistic shot at qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

“We still have a really good chance,” said U point guard Shona Thorburn, citing the Utes’ Ratings Percentage Index of 28. “I think this conference has two teams [New Mexico and Utah] that deserve to get in no matter what happens in the conference tournament.”

Last year the Utes missed the NCAA Tournament after finishing the season with a regular-season conference co-championship and an RPI in the upper 30s. This year might be different, but recent history suggests the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee doesn’t think much of the Mountain West Conference.

Air Force and San Diego State almost never win conference games, and when it comes right down to it, Colorado State and Wyoming rarely win enough games to look like worthy competition. In the end, the Utes end up looking like they didn’t play enough big games and, more importantly, the big wins they score in conference play are not considered meaningful by the NCAA.

The Utes played a brutal non-conference schedule, which is the reason their RPI is so high, but they only have one quality win, which came against Texas Christian University. TCU has wins against No. 9 Michigan State and No. 16 Georgia, which helps the Utes significantly, but the Horned Frogs are currently unranked.

The Utes would certainly feel better if they had more than one big win to hang their hats on.

Looking for some space to give the team a chance to regroup mentally, Elliott gave the players a day off from practice on Monday. The players were back to the grind Tuesday getting ready for this weekend’s game against the Air Force Falcons (2-6, 7-14 MWC).

“You don’t change things much,” Thorburn said. “You have to be willing to learn from the game but you also have to be willing to look ahead. We have a game this Saturday and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Game time is set for 3 p.m. Saturday in the Huntsman Center.

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