Utes obtain perfection

By Natalie Dicou

Only UNLV stood between the U women’s basketball team and an undefeated Mountain West Conference season, although the Rebels didn’t set up any big hurdles.

The No. 15 Utes (27-3, 16-0 MWC) started the game out at an electrifying pace and ran right over UNLV (8-20, 4-11 MWC) early in the contest after jumping out to a 21-4 lead. The Utes went on to secure their 22nd consecutive victory-a dominating 82-46 decision-and became only the second team in the history of the MWC to go undefeated in conference play. The other flawless group was the 2001 Utah squad that made it to the Sweet 16.

“It’s a special end to the first part of the quest,” head coach Elaine Elliott said of the spotless 16-0 finish. Led by senior Leilani Mitchell–who finished one rebound short of a triple-double with 14 points, 13 assists and nine rebound–the Utes extended their advantage to 33-7 later in the half, and by halftime, the Utes had a commanding 44-19 lead. The win came just three days after the Utes barely got past the pitiable Colorado State Rams (2-27, 0-16 in MWC) in a five-point thriller that would’ve been the upset of the year if the Utes had fallen in Fort Collins, Colo.

“I thought they’d come back better because they weren’t happy with their particular performance (on Wednesday) and they’ve always responded to that,” Elliott said minutes after shaking her booty in a post-game celebratory dance-off featuring the 25-year veteran and the surprisingly limber Whipple. “They’re their own best critic, if I can say it that way, meaning, you know, they’re proud. They want to play well.”

The Utes scored in all manner of ways, including 40 points in the paint and 17 fast-break points. They were also hot from 3-point range, knocking down 9-of-19 from beyond the arc. While bench players shot just 1-of-6 from long range, the starters hit on 8-of-13 attempts. Whipple, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, led the way by connecting on 4-of-6 treys.

“This is one of the funnest times I’ve ever had in my life in my whole basketball career,” said Whipple, a native of Hiko, Nev. “We have such good team chemistry. We enjoy each other and we have fun. Everybody wants to be there. Everybody on the team wants the same thing.”

With the win pretty much guaranteed after 10 minutes of play, Elliott spread the minutes around, giving lesser-used reserves like Hennesea Tokumura and Deanne Stevenson significant playing time. Stevenson made a case for more playing time by scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 16 minutes.

Four Utah players scored in double-figures and every healthy player scored as the Utes manhandled the Rebels in nearly every major statistical category. The Utes had 25 assists to UNLV’s eight dimes. Utah also out-rebounded UNLV 45-29 and the Utes shot 50 percent from the field while the Rebels shot 30 percent. Morgan Warburton helped the cause with 12 points while senior Jessica Perry added another seven in her final game at the Huntsman Center.

Mitchell, who also played in her final home game, was a tad disappointed that she didn’t come away with a triple-double on Senior Night. After going into halftime with 12 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, it seemed like a certainty that Mitchell would earn basketball’s ultimate statistical prize. But with the game in hand, Elliott kept Mitchell on the bench for the majority of the second half.

“When they put me back in that last time, they said, ‘go get one more rebound.’ I didn’t get one,” Mitchell said, laughing. “I tried.”

Mitchell might not have gotten a triple-double but she will see a lifelong dream realized. In her final college season, she will finally get to play in the NCAA tournament. Mitchell, a Kennewick, Wash., native transferred to the U with achieving that goal in mind.

“I’ve always seen it on TV and I just wanted to be a part of that,” Mitchell said. “I thought coming here, I’d have a good chance and it’s worked out so we’ve just got to hopefully do well when we get there. I don’t want to just go though. We want to go deep and make a big run.”

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