Getting acquainted with some household names

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

Morgan, Kalee and Leilani should all be household names.

They should also be one-name campus stars.

But even when I add in their last names: Warburton, Whipple and Mitchell, respectively, those names still might not ring a bell.

For those of you in the dark, they’re the big three of the Utah women’s basketball team. Actually, they’re the little three — the point guard, two-guard and small forward.

Together, they make up one of the best-kept secrets on campus.

So, get ready ladies and gents — or as Craig Bolerjack, the voice of the Utah Jazz, says, “buckle up!” — because the U women’s basketball team is coming at you full speed.

The team obliterated two hapless foes — Western Montana and Fort Lewis — by a combined total of 173-68 in a pair of exhibition contests last week, which means it’s finally time to challenge some real competition.

Their season tips off Thursday night at the Huntsman Center against UC Irvine.

The Utes will be paced by Leilani Mitchell, Utah’s 5-foot-5 senior point guard. Mitchell transferred to the U last year after playing three years at Idaho. She was required to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules and is stoked to finally be back on the court.

Mitchell is a key addition to the Utes’ lineup. Coach Elaine Elliott, who is entering her 25th year as Utah’s head coach, is thrilled to have the experience of a senior point guard on the floor.

Mitchell isn’t your typical transfer. In the 2005-2006 season, Mitchell ranked second in the nation in steals with 4.0 per game. She also averaged 17.6 points and led the Western Athletic Conference with 5.6 assists per contest.

She’s quick, makes creative and accurate no-look passes, and she specializes in sneaking up on people on defense and snatching the ball away.

She’s no slouch as a shooter either. She once made seven threes in a game.

On the wings are the dynamic tandem of Morgan Warburton and Kalee Whipple.

Last season, Warburton was a first-team all-conference selection and Whipple took home third-team accolades.

Warburton, a 5-foot-11 guard out of Helper, Utah, averaged 15.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists for the Utes last year. She’s a versatile player who can both shoot and drive to the hoop. Elliott believes the junior has gained tremendous maturity since last season. Her poised play will be key to the Utes’ success this year.

At small forward is the 6-foot-0 Whipple, whom Elliott expected to contribute as a freshman last year. But even Elliott had to be impressed with how quickly Whipple blossomed into an all-around player. Whipple averaged 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds as a freshman and came on especially strong as the 2006-2007 season wound down. The sophomore plans to start the year where she left off in March.

Senior Jessica Perry, a 6-foot-3 center, struggled a bit last season. She tallied 4.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game — both stats were below her sophomore averages. She’s not the best finisher around the rim, but she grabs rebounds and sometimes rises to the occasion to bury a big shot. Elliott predicts that the senior is headed into her strongest season yet.

Forwards Katie King and Halie Sawyer will also be likely contributors.

King transferred from Salt Lake Community College and is gearing up to make her debut in a Division I regular season game. Sawyer provided an unlikely spark off the bench last season as a freshman.

In the past, the women’s team has been dwarfed by the men’s program, a perennial conference powerhouse. But over the past several seasons, the women’s team has put itself on the map and has surpassed the men’s recent accomplishments.

Two years ago, the Utes advanced all the way to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.

So come one, come all. Support the Utah women’s basketball team. They’re fast, athletic and poised to make a run for another conference title.

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