New age of Utah hoops

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

With 18 seasons under his belt, Jerry Sloan is lauded as the longest tenured coach in all of professional sports. But another Utah basketball coach has the Jazz taskmaster beat by half a decade.

And her winning percentage is better, too.

Elaine Elliott, the U women’s basketball coach, will embark on her 24th season at the helm of what has become a nationally acclaimed program when the Utes take on Albertson College at home Nov. 4. During her extensive career, the veteran coach has come out victorious in nearly 72 percent of the games she has coached.

Last march, the Elliott-led Utes advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, narrowly missing a Final Four berth when they fell in overtime to eventual champion Maryland.

For Elliott, Utah’s run in the NCAA tournament is an accomplishment that won’t soon be forgotten.

“It’s still with us. It’s part of this program now and it’s a part of history,” she said. “It’s something that is who we are. It’s a part of our identity and we’re going to claim it and run with it for years to come.”

Added Elliott, “And we’re going to try to do it again.”

Of course, that won’t be an easy assignment for the Utes, who must face opponents without phenoms Shona Thorburn and Kim Smith, who are sure to become Utah hoops legends-if they aren’t already.

But that duo, around which Utah’s offense revolved for the past four years, has graduated.

Thorburn and Smith were the team’s unquestioned leaders and stars and are now getting paid for their talents in the WNBA, leaving question marks aplenty for Utah’s revamped 2006-2007 squad.

But Elliott isn’t too concerned. “We don’t have to have two kids replace those two,” she said, noting that her 2000-2001 Sweet 16 team didn’t have a single star on the roster.

Without an outright star on her incoming squad, Elliott is engaged in finding leaders. The seasoned coach is on the lookout for players that are “capable” and “willing” to accept the responsibility of leading the team, and who have “the mentality and the game.”

“You can’t just sort of anoint (a new team leader),” she said. “It really has to be the right kid and the right talent. We’ll see who can get that done.”

And while no one has stepped into the spotlight quite yet to claim the vital leadership position, one likely suspect is junior forward Jessica Perry, Utah’s top returning scorer and rebounder.

Perry averaged 7.1 points and 5.0 rebounds a game last season and is the team’s most experienced starter with 55 starts.

The 6-foot-3 Ontario native struggled to find words to describe her Elite Eight experience.

“I seriously can’t even express how fun it was,” she said. “The team, the atmosphere. It was probably the best time of my life. I just can’t even explain it.”

Another expected contributor is sophomore point guard Morgan Warburton, who was only a freshman when she scored 11 points in the Elite Eight game. Experience in an incredibly high-pressure situation at such a young age could prove to be invaluable asset that Warburton hopes to bring to the Utes.

Joining the Utes this season along with four other freshman is six-footer Kalee Whipple, whose athletic ability is expected to earn her court time in her rookie season. Elliott said the Utes plan to use Whipple like they did Kim Smith, as “a small forward who (Utah) can use at the four position as well.”

Also expected to contribute are senior guard Heidi Carlsen, sophomore forward Joh-Teena Filipe and senior forward Camie Oakey.

The Utes will play in two exhibition games at the Huntsman Center against Albertson College and Fort Lewis College before tipping off their preseason schedule and a new era of Utah women’s basketball at Gonzaga on Nov. 10.

Said Elliott, “We believe we are in the elite and we will stay there.”

Kamil Krzaczynski

Morgan Warburton tries to evade pressure put on by TCU defense in a March 2 game at the Huntsman Center.