Even when his team struggled mightily through the first portion of the Pac-12 schedule, Utah coach Anthony Levrets never let that deter him. His Utes were talented, and he told anyone who would listen. He maintained that a college basketball season was a long one, and eventually that talent would shine through.
Two weeks from the conclusion of the year, Levrets looks like a very smart man.
With a resounding 59-47 victory over Washington State on Sunday, before 964 at the Huntsman Center, the Utah women are now one of the hottest outfits in the league.
The win is the fifth in six outings for the Utes. A team that started the conference season with a 1-7 record is now 7-9 with the chance to travel to Oregon and Oregon State next weekend and finish the league schedule at .500.
It’s been quite the turnaround for Utah. And in front of a loud Senior Day crowd, the Utes look to be peaking at the right time.
“We certainly hope so,” Levrets said. “We know that we weren’t as bad as our record indicated earlier in the season. We had a tough schedule early on, and we just had to keep the faith and make our way through it. We know that we just have to take things one game at a time.”
Utah’s playing better defensively, and it shows. The Utes are also way less offensively challenged than they were a month ago.
On Sunday, both attributes were on display. A 17-4 run to end the first half turned a 20-12 deficit into a 29-24 advantage. Utah never trailed in the second 20 minutes. The Utes shot 50 percent from the field in the first half, using the inside dominance of Taryn Wicijowski as a springboard.
A few weeks ago, Wicijowski underwent knee surgery to repair a damaged meniscus. Against the Cougars, the 6-foot-3 junior scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds, controlling both ends of the floor.
And she had help. Senior guard Iwalani Rodrigues scored 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out five assists. Michelle Plouffe had 11 points, six rebounds and five assists. Utah dominated the rebounding battle, 45-24. Washington State was limited to 37.5 percent shooting.
“We’ve really started to jell in the last few weeks,” Wicijowski said. “We’re getting more confident, and we know that we are starting to play like we belong in this league.”
With 16 wins, the Utes are on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament. They know that they have to win out in the regular season. They likely have to win a few games in the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament to have a shot at an at-large berth into the Big Dance.
It seems to be a long shot. Then again, there was no shot a month ago.
Storylines Utes 59, Cougars 47
R Utah goes on a 17-4 run to end the first half.
• Taryn Wicijowski scores 22 points and grabs nine rebounds.
• Utah moves to 16-11 on the season.