Utes exceeded expectations for the season

By By Quinn Wilcox

By Quinn Wilcox

It was going to be one tough act to follow.

Twenty-seven wins, a perfect 16-0 mark in Mountain West Conference play, 22 straight wins and a MWC Player of the Year.

But anytime you have an Elaine Elliott program, expectations will always be high.

The Utah women’s basketball team had a couple of head-scratching losses over the course of the 2008-2009 year, but with another MWC regular season title in hand, as well as an MWC tournament championship, it is safe to say that the Utes didn’t disappoint any of their fans.

It became apparent at the beginning of the season that this version of the women’s basketball team was going to have a completely different look.

Sure, some of the pieces were the same, particularly the combo of Morgan Warburton and Kalee Whipple.

But without Leilani Mitchell controlling the ball most of the time for the Utes, the offense was going to need a complete makeover.

There were some growing pains.

Freshmen guards Hannah Stephens and Janita Badon had their moments, but the team as a whole was having a hard time keeping turnovers down to a minimum without Mitchell. Utah lost six of its first 10 games, largely because of an inability to take care of the ball and a lack of scoring options outside of Warburton and Whipple. Granted, the early portion of the non-conference schedule was extremely difficult, with games against ranked opponents such as Louisville, Virginia, and South Dakota State8212;don’t let the name fool you.

There was the rather concerning loss at Weber State, where the Utes looked out of sync and resembled a team with no identity.

Eventually, the light turned on.

Once the Utes started relying on their stout defense and rebounding, things started to turn around quickly. Although this team would have been lost had it not been for Warburton’s stellar play, Halie Sawyer and Katie King were arguably just as important this season.

Sawyer and King gave the Utes’ offense a new dimension, as they averaged 18 points combined on the season, while leading the team in rebounds per game. King’s improved play this year was good enough for her to receive MWC honors. With the emergence of King and Sawyer, the Utes rolled off 12 straight wins and pushed their regular season conference winning streak to 25 games8212;an MWC record.

The second half of the conference slate didn’t go as smoothly.

There were two tough losses at SDSU and at TCU, to go along with a huge upset loss at UNLV.

The critics were out in full force, but Warburton’s heroics in the tournament, which included a game-winning shot against New Mexico to go along with 24 points in the final against SDSU, got Utah a ticket to the dance.

A championship sweep of the MWC earned the Utes a No. 8 seed in the tournament and they were shipped out east to take on the No. 9 seed Villanova Wildcats.

A 60-30 win over the Wildcats showed that the team really did achieve its full potential.

The Utes played to their strengths, outrebounding the Wildcats 45-26 and holding Villanova to 19 percent shooting from the floor.

This season might not have been as flashy as last year, but the results were just as good, if not better in some areas. This team got further than last year’s.

Warburton became the second Ute in a row to win MWC Player of the Year, and the team closed out strong.

The journey might not have been the same, but the results exceeded expectations and in the end, isn’t that all that matters?

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