Philadelphia • The heartwarming story of how the Utah Utes overcame an incredibly rigorous travel schedule and four rugged road games to reach the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship game 2,100 miles from home ended in heartbreaking fashion for them on Saturday afternoon.
The Utes, trying to force overtime for the third time in their remarkable WNIT run, fell short of the title when star forward Michelle Plouffe’s 3-pointer was also a little short, and the homestanding Drexel Dragons took a 46-43 win in the championship game in front of 1,922 fans and a national television audience.
Drexel students stormed the court seconds after Plouffe’s shot clanged off the front of the rim, while the Utes (23-14) trudged off to their locker room, their run of five straight wins over by the slimmest of margins.
“This thing didn’t come down to us not doing something,” Utah coach Anthony Levrets said. “Drexel made one more play than we did and that’s what we have been doing to other people. You gotta give them a lot of credit.”
But there will be a lot of wondering about what might have been for the Utes, if they only could have taken care of the ball in the last 30 seconds. They controlled the game for all but a few minutes in the face of a raucous gathering at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
The Utes overcame a late five-point deficit, and took a 43-42 lead with three minutes remaining when Iwalani Rodrigues’ 3-pointer just beat the shot clock. They had that lead and the ball with 33 seconds left, but Drexel stole the inbound pass under its own basket.
“I just turned it over,” Plouffe said. “That’s what happened.”
Twelve seconds later, disaster happened for the Utes, as Hollie Mershon finally got free of Rodrigues’ defensive grip for the game-winning layup. Mershon’s free throws with 9.7 seconds left sealed it, and also came after Utah’s second turnover in the final moments, a backcourt violation.
“There is no better feeling than winning a championship on your home court,” Mershon said.
The Utes, who played five of the six tournament games away from the Huntsman Center, would have liked a chance for that feeling, too.
While those last few plays will be remembered by the Utes, it was a call with just over 12 minutes remaining that turned the momentum in the home team’s favor, after Utah opened the second half with a 7-3 run to turn a 24-21 halftime lead into a seven-point advantage.
Utah’s Ciera Dunbar seemingly made a runner from 6 feet out, but was called for an offensive foul and the basketball was disallowed.
“Yeah, it was a really big play, and that’s what happens on the road,” said Levrets. “... I thought [the shot] was good. Obviously, I am biased. ... But this was a really special environment to play in today, and it happens.”
The Utes won the rebounding battle 34-30 and both teams shot around 35 percent from the field. The difference was turnovers: Utah committed nine, which the Dragons turned into 11 points. Drexel committed just one turnover.
“That’s definitely unusual,” Drexel coach Denise Dillon said. “Yeah’ that’s pretty remarkable.”
Rodrigues was 4 of 14, but finished with 12 points for Utah, while Plouffe was 3 of 14 for nine points but made her presence felt with 14 rebounds. Cheyenne Wilson and Dunbar made big 3-pointers off the bench in the first half as Utah never trailed in the first 20 minutes.
If not for five empty possessions to end the game, Utah would be flying home Sunday with the first WNIT trophy in school history.
“I think over the course of a game there are a lot of possessions you can look at,” Levrets said. “You know, we didn’t execute early in the game. Some of [the] calls, when we kind of had them on the ropes a little bit [didn’t go their way]. So it is not only the last two plays. At the time, they are probably a little more magnified, but that’s not why we lost.”
Drexel 46, Utah 43
R In Short • Utah’s run in the WNIT ends in heartbreaking fashion as Drexel turns the tide in the final 30 seconds to win the championships.
Key Moment • Hollie Mershon’s driving layup with 20 seconds remaining gives the Dragons a 44-43 lead.
Key Stat • Drexel commits just one turnover and scores 11 points off nine Utah turnovers.