Women Hoops puts talent on display in exhibition

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

Morgan Warburton, Utah’s star two-guard, is a year older than she was the last time the Utes stepped out onto the hardwood. That year has brought a new sense of wisdom and maturity to the first-team all-conference player.

Now a junior, Warburton realizes that she doesn’t need to carry the weight of the world — or her team — on her shoulders.

Warburton, who led the Utes with 15.8 points last season, wants to involve her team more this year. Not that Warburton is a selfish player — she also tallied 4.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds — but at times, the sophomore version of Warburton felt the need to “do too much.”

“I’m not going to put so much pressure on myself to score,” Warburton said. “My whole team is capable of scoring.”

Warburton plans to focus her mental efforts on keeping the Utes revved up, which she did Saturday afternoon in the first exhibition game of the season — a lopsided 95-36 victory over Western Montana.

Last year, the Utes’ intensity waxed and waned. Sometimes, the players’ heads were in the game. Other times, they lacked a killer instinct.

But Warburton believes it’ll be different this year, partly because of the change of roster.

Following last season, four players — including two starters — abruptly quit the team. The situation, along with the sudden loss of talent, was a disturbance for the Utes last year. But the players — who apparently weren’t buying into coach Elaine Elliott’s system — and their accompanying distractions are no longer affecting the Utes.

“It’s a ton better now,” said Kalee Whipple, who had 24 points in the exhibition. “Everybody wants the same goal. Everybody wants to win.”

Elliott couldn’t agree more.

“Things feel right now,” Elliott said. “Things feel very good. This is a good unit.”

After one of the most productive off seasons in recent memory, the Utes appeared to be in mid-season form against Western Montana.

“This is the best off season we’ve had in a lot of years,” Elliott said. “Every single kid stayed in the summer. The freshmen came in early, so they all worked out all summer together.”

While a game against an outmatched Western Montana team isn’t likely to yield much real perspective on the upcoming year, it did offer some insights.

Namely, Utah’s perimeter game is one of the best around. The Utes drained a remarkable 10-of-12 three-point shots in the first half, or 83.3 percent, which is better than most free-throw shooters fare.

Warburton and Whipple, two of the MWC’s best players, will man the wings for the Utes.

Warburton is an all-around player who is capable of creating shots for herself and others.

At small forward is the dynamic sophomore Whipple. She can post up, shoot threes, rebound and pass. She does it all and is brimming with potential.

The lineup change that will likely impact the Utes most is the addition of point guard Leilani Mitchell. The senior was an honorable mention All-American at Idaho and was on the Utah roster last year but had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules. Elliott has described her as “WNBA good” and Mitchell didn’t disappoint in the exhibition. In fact, she was three steals shy of a triple-double with 10 points, 10 assists and seven steals.

With Mitchell manning the point, undue pressure will be taken off Warburton, who can now focus on her duties on the wing.

“(Warburton) doesn’t have to do that much anymore with the presence of Leilani,” Elliott said. “Leilani takes the ball-handling burden off her and helps her be better and just do the things she does best.”

The new-look Utes are back in action Tuesday when Fort Lewis (Durango, Colo.) visits the Huntsman Center to play the role of tuner in Utah’s second and final exhibition before the regular season gets underway.

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