Utah women’s basketball: Utes meet Drexel for WNIT championship
WNIT championship • Extensive travel bolsters Utah’s unity.
Published: April 5, 2013 11:44PM
Updated: July 7, 2013 11:31PM
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Utah players celebrate after defeating Kansas State in a women's NIT college basketball semifinal, Wednesday, April 3, 2013, in Manhattan, Kan. Utah won 54-46 in overtime. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Philadelphia • After the Utah women’s basketball team wrapped up a short, intense practice Friday morning at the Daskalakis Athletic Center, most of the players gathered at midcourt and took turns firing shots. Others tried some trick shots and acted as if there was nowhere else they would rather be, all while assistant coaches stood by, waiting to head out to the team bus.

If ever a team could be forgiven for being sick of basketball, and travel, or even each other, it would seemingly be this one. Instead, the Utes are enjoying this brutal road journey they have been on, seemingly trying to soak up every minute they can together.

“It will make it all the more better, all the more sweeter, if we win this thing because it has been so difficult,” star forward Taryn Wicijowski said. “We have seen about everything you can possible see, had everything thrown at us that you can imagine, but we’ve come out better than before, and we’re still having fun.”

This “thing” Wicijowski is referring to is the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Having collected four of their five WNIT wins on the road since March 20, the Utes play home-standing Drexel of the Colonial Athletic Conference at the intimate DAC arena (cap: 2,532) on Saturday at 1 p.m. (MDT) for the tournament championship. Something close to a sellout crowd is expected and the game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.

After the game, the Utes will hop on a bus bound for Washington, D.C., and will fly back to Salt Lake City from there. By then, they will have flown 6,800 miles and spent nearly 15 hours on buses during this WNIT run. They got to play just one game at the Huntsman Center, a 61-50 win over WCC runner-up San Diego in the second round.

How have they done it?

“I think adrenaline and excitement, and the joy of getting to play together has sustained them,” said third-year coach Anthony Levrets. “They love each other. I have never been around a group of kids that have liked each other as much.”

And they keep surprising their coach, after losing 54-43 to UCLA in the second round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament and struggling offensively. The WNIT has given the Utes (23-13) a second chance, and they’ve made the most of it, despite the travel-heavy schedule.

Levrets thought his team had finally run out of gas on Wednesday night against Kansas State after landing in Kansas City and taking a two-hour bus ride to Manhattan, but it kept at it and then “played unbelievably well” in overtime to get a 54-46 win.

“Just when I thought we didn’t have anything left in the tank, we pulled something out,” Levrets said. “Now we are in the championship game, and I don’t think [fatigue] is going to be a factor. We’re too excited.”

Levrets said star juniors Michelle Plouffe and Wicijowski have been the most noticeable scoring leaders, but Iwalani Rodrigues’ defense has been just as important, and Rachel Messer and Cheyenne Wilson have made big shots in crunch time.

Rodrigues “has been sensational defensively,” Levrets said. “All these teams we’ve played have had a great guard, and she has done an unbelievable job of taking away [scoring].”

Drexel fits that description. The Dragons’ offense is focused around senior guard Hollie Mershon, who had 28 points and 10 assists in their 67-57 win over Florida on Wednesday.

If the Utes can contain the high-scoring senior, they should be able to complete what has been a memorable, but difficult, run to the WNIT title.

“We’ve done it together, which has been the key,” Plouffe said. “I think playing most of our games on the road will make it a sweet victory if we do it. It will be sweet no matter what, but that’s special, the way we’ve done it.”

drew@sltrib.com

Twitter: @drewjay

Utah’s WNIT run

Date Location, Result

March 20 • Long Beach, Calif. Def. Long Beach St., 56-49

March 25 • Salt Lake City Def. San Diego, 61-50

March 28 • Stockton, Calif. Def. Pacific, 60-55 (OT)

March 30 • Moraga, Calif. Def. Saint Mary’s, 58-55

Wednesday • Manhattan, Kan. Def. K-State, 54-46 (OT)

Saturday • Philadelphia Utah vs. Drexel, 1 p.m.

Utah at Drexel

O At the Daskalakis Athletic Center (Philadelphia)

Tipoff • Saturday, 1 p.m. MDT

TV • CBS Sports Network. Radio • 700 AM

Records • Utah 23-13, Drexel 27-10

Series history • First meeting

About the Utes • They have defeated Long Beach State, San Diego, Pacific, Saint Mary’s and Kansas State in their WNIT run. The only home game in the WNIT was against San Diego, a 61-50 win. … They are 9-9 overall in the WNIT but have never reached the championship game until now. … Michelle Plouffe leads them in scoring with a 17.4 average.

About the Dragons • Coach Denise Dillon has a 151-125 record at the school. ... They play in the Colonial Athletic Association. … They have defeated Iona, Harvard and Florida at home and Bowling Green and Auburn on the road in their run to the WNIT championship game. … Hollie Mershon had 28 points and 10 assists in their 67-57 win over Florida on Wednesday.