Team finds unity, wins in trip to Italy

By Matt Sanchez, Staff Writer

The U sent its women’s basketball team on a journey, but it was not your typical road trip.

From May 9 through May 19, the team traveled around Italy, playing four games against various Italian clubs. This was a basketball trip, but the team was able to experience much more than just hoops.

The Utes went unblemished on their trip, winning all four of their games by an average of more than 20 points.

Led by junior Kalee Whipple and her 19 points, the Utes won their first game, against Santa Marinella, 67-57.

Next, the Utes would face Firenze Basket and were able to win 69-37 behind a balanced attack that included 15 points from Whipple and a near triple-double from freshman Janita Badon, who finished with eight points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

In their third game, the Utes played A.S. San Martino Basket and got a strong performance from senior Katie King, who scored 19 points and paced the team to an 81-59 victory.

To close out their Italian tour, the Utes bested Crema 67-49 behind junior Halie Sawyer’s double-double of 16 points and 12 rebounds.

“The most beneficial part about this trip was young kids getting game time and having an expanded role on the team,” said head coach Elaine Elliott.

Elliott said she was particularly pleased with freshmen Mandy Munns and Iwalani Rodrigues and hopes this experience will help them to have bigger roles on the team and have more confidence next season.

Although the games were not all that competitive, the team still faced challenges. Elliott and many of the players expressed frustration with the Italian referees and the way they officiated the games.

“The refs have not yet discovered the pivot foot yet in Italy,” Sawyer said.

“It seemed like every time we try to attack for a layup or make a move such as a shot fake or jab step we get called for travels,” said junior Sasha McKinnon.

“(The) refs can’t understand you, so you have to learn to play through new frustrations and rely on your game,” Elliott said.

Throughout their travels across Italy, many of the players shared memories and experiences via a blog on the team’s Web site. They wrote about visiting Rome, the Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel but they also wrote about attacking pigeons, negotiating with street vendors and pizzerias. The blogs make it clear that this trip was much more than just basketball. It was an opportunity for the players and coaches to form unity and become closer.

“One of the best things about this trip (was) the camaraderie we shared,” Elliott said. “During this intense 10-day travel situation, we were together 24/7 (and) that close proximity helps strengthen bonds.”

This wasn’t the first time Elliott and her staff traveled across the pond for a tour in Europe. The NCAA allows teams to take an overseas trip once every four years during the summer. Back in 2005 the team played four games in Spain and Portugal. In 2001, they played games in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In 1997, the Utes competed in France and Switzerland.

“Understanding culture and having an historical perspective is so important,” Elliot said. “If we can provide something this special then it helps these young women appreciate and recognize their opportunity. This will be an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

The last time the Utes started a new season overseas, they made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Last season the Utes finished 23-10, earning a share of the regular season Mountain West Conference title and won the MWC Tournament Championship. With the loss of MWC Player of the Year, Morgan Warburton, next season could be challenging, but Elliott is confident and looking forward to the coming season.

“I’m really excited about next season,” Elliot said. “We have very exciting young kids, vets and a good crop of incoming freshman. It will be a little crazy, but fun.”

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