Somewhere between the practice floor and the arena floor at game time, the Utah women’s basketball team got lost.
That goes for more than the No. 10 Utes’ 57-48 defeat Wednesday night at the hands of No. 7 Washington State in the first round of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
As has been the case all season, a talented Utes team that generated plenty of opportunity and looks at the basket was unable to capitalize. After a strong start, in which it shot 40% from the field and 50% from behind the arc in the first quarter, the team finished 23.3% and 22.7% for the game, respectively. Part of the issue was a third quarter in which Utah went 1 for 12 from the field and 0 for 5 on 3-point attempts.
For the season, Utah ranked 10th out of the 12 conference teams in field-goal percentage (38%) and ninth in 3-point percentage (30.7%).
“I think it has to do with all the other mental things that we’re thinking about, you know, not like just pandemic stuff. It’s definitely not that we can’t shoot,” sophomore guard Brynna Maxwell said. “Our team is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of and it shows in practice. But I think, I don’t know, it’s something we have to work on, just carry it over into a game.”
Coach Lynne Roberts said it has been hard to get in a rhythm while dealing with issues surrounding COVID-19, both on the court, in social lives and in the classroom. And that lack of consistency has had repercussions.
“This year,” she said, “has been one of those things where our routines, our normalcy, the things we can count on haven’t been there.”
It’s something Utah, like many programs, has been dealing with peripherally for months. But the specter of the coronavirus reared its head again for the Utes over the past week. They had to cancel Sunday’s scheduled season finale against Colorado two hours before tipoff because of an outbreak on the team. That put even playing in the tournament in limbo. Then, once testing and contact tracing were finished, the team was given the go-ahead to compete but without freshmen Kelsey Rees and Donna Ntambue.
The Utes particularly felt the absence of Rees on Wednesday. The center had come off the bench to contribute 10 points and six rebounds in a 12-point loss to the Cougars in Pullman 10 days earlier. With junior Lola Pendande struggling to score and in foul trouble for much of the second half Wednesday as she tried to guard Bella Murekatete (13 points, 12 rebounds) — before fouling out with four minutes left — Rees could have provided some much-needed relief.
Instead, Utah’s guards did most of the heavy lifting.
Sophomore Kemery Martin was the first player in double figures in the game. Her eight points served as the engine behind the Utes’ 17-16 first-quarter lead. She only added three points in the second half, however, to end with 13 and six rebounds. Maxwell caught fire in the second half for 15 points and six rebounds to pace the Utes.
No other Utah player scored more than five points.
Freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker led the Cougars with 15 points.
Roberts said she knows her team is better than its 10th-place conference showing and 6-15 record. She said because of all the ups and downs, this season in her mind will always have an asterisk. Perhaps the good news is, most of the players are underclassmen and only two stand to graduate, though the entire team can return next season if they choose, per NCAA rules.
“Everybody’s gone through it and it’s challenging. And when you’ve got a young team …,” she said, trailing off. “The biggest thing is it’s hard to get momentum.
Then, taking a big sigh, she added, “It’s really hard to describe how weird this year has been.”