Women’s Hoops: Mitchell is team’s driving force

By Natalie Dicou

Elaine Elliott has been in the coaching business for more than two-and-a-half decades, but never, in all her seasons on the Utah bench, has she mentored a point guard quite like Leilani Mitchell.

No offense to Shona Thorburn — the No. 7 pick in the 2006 WNBA draft, or to any of the other great point guards who have brought the ball up the court for the Utes over the years, but Mitchell is, according to Elliott, the best ever.

“She just doesn’t have weaknesses,” Elliott said. “She’s really strong throughout the spectrum of skill that you want in a basketball player.”

The veteran coach isn’t the only one raving about Mitchell. Major media outlets, such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated, have published stories about the Kennewick, Wash., native. The ESPN article referred to Mitchell as “one of the nation’s premier point guards” and the SI story called her “the key to Utah’s surprising success,” describing her assist numbers as “remarkable.”

Everybody seems to be talking about Mitchell and her ability to control a basketball game.

Mitchell is the pilot of the Utah offensive attack. Instinctively, she just knows where to go, what to do and when to do it.

Mitchell has proven her ability to dictate the flow of a game. She uses her quickness to blow by defenders for an easy layup or an assist to a cutting teammate. She can bury 3-pointers, but her specialty is the midrange jumper. From the elbows, she is especially deadly.

Perhaps Mitchell’s single weakness is her diminutive stature, as she is listed at 5-foot-5, but even that didn’t keep her from becoming a favorite for the MWC Player of the Year award.

For the Utah women’s basketball team and its fans, the only bummer associated with Mitchell’s time at Utah is that it has been so short. Mitchell, a senior, transferred to the U after her situation at Idaho turned sour.

“It was just really difficult times and people were frustrated,” Mitchell said. “Coaches were frustrated. Players were frustrated, and we just weren’t meshing too well, and it just wasn’t fun anymore and we weren’t winning games. I just really wanted to enjoy my last year of college basketball, so I decided to leave.”

Two years ago, Mitchell notified Gonzaga University and the U of her impending transfer. Being from Washington, she liked the idea of attending Gonzaga, which is two hours from her hometown.

“That was the only factor about Utah about why I would’ve second-guessed coming here,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to stay close to home, so my family could come to my games and I could go home whenever I wanted.”

Although her family has been absent at the lion’s share of her games at Utah, Mitchell is stoked that her loved ones will be in Salt Lake City to watch her play UNLV on Saturday.

“Like three or four of my brothers, I think, are going to come for Senior Night,” Mitchell said. “My grandparents and my dad, they’re all going to come, and they’re all going to come to Vegas, too.”

The conference tournament in Sin City begins Wednesday.

After ultimately deciding to come to Utah, Mitchell sat out with a mandatory redshirt last year, leaving her with one year of eligibility. After a couple of disappointing years of basketball — although not too disappointing considering Mitchell was recognized with All-America honors at Idaho — Mitchell’s senior year at Utah has surpassed even her most optimistic projections.

“I came here because I knew there were great players and great coaches,” she said. “That much I knew. But I didn’t know how well we’d do. I knew we could go undefeated in conference, and you know, we talked about it at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t expect that coming in last year.”

Mitchell has been the driving force in Utah’s 15-0 conference campaign and its No. 15 ranking. She has also led the Utes to their longest-ever winning streak, which was 18 consecutive wins prior to the season but now stands at 21-and counting.

“It’s been so much fun and I love it,” Mitchell said. “It’s just been a great experience altogether.”

Although Mitchell’s value on the court can’t fully be captured in statistics, her numbers certainly are impressive.

Mitchell is fifth in the country in assists with 7.4 per game. Of the players who average 6.5 assists or more per game, only one of them has a better scoring average than Mitchell.

She is also a full three assists better than any other passer in the MWC.

Mitchell shoots 45.5 percent from the field — good enough for No. 6 in the league. She’s also reliable from the free-throw line, averaging 81.8 percent from the stripe. Mitchell also leads the league in assist/turnover ratio at 2.57 and is second in steals.

Those are just numbers. Mostly, Mitchell wants to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament.

She has other hopes, too.

On April 9, Mitchell hopes to have her name announced as a selection in the upcoming the WNBA Draft.

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Kelli Tompkins