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Utah women's basketball: Despite 12 seed, Utes feel refocused heading to Pac-12 Tournament

Published March 1, 2017 2:47 pm

Utah women's basketball • Team's goal is to shoot better than in regular season.
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Utah women's basketball was dwarfed by fanfare for the NCAA's all-time leading scorer last weekend.

There was a lot to take in: Kelsey Plum scored a whopping 57 points while taking 28 shots against the Utes. She reset a 16-year-old record and pushed her career mark to 3,397 points to the delight of a packed home crowd.

But Utah saw something encouraging that had been consumed by Plum's benchmark: In the 84-77 loss to the No. 11 team in the country, they had been in the game.

That's why the Utes, who are in the unenviable position of the No. 12 seed in this week's Pac-12 Tournament, have faith that "there's a lot of basketball to play." This season hardly has gone as planned for a team that hoped to build on a seventh-place finish last season, but the Utes believe the ending still can go right in Seattle.

"I think we're playing harder now," junior Emily Potter said. "The team is out there playing for their lives, playing for each other with nothing to lose. It's sort of like, 'What the heck. Go for it, and go all out.'"

The reason an undefeated nonconference start crashed into a four-way tie for last place (Utah is No. 12 by virtue of tiebreakers) isn't a mystery: the Utes connected at only a 36.4 percent clip this season, second-to-last in the conference.

Shooting struggles led to other struggles: Coach Lynne Roberts pointed out a lethargy among her players at various points during the season. After one of Utah's final home losses, a 73-61 defeat to Oregon, there was a film session where Roberts laid out two options. The Utes could worry about rebuilding for next season, or they could try to recover what was left of the current season.

The next game was Senior Day against Oregon State. The Utes decided they weren't about to give up. They instead opened wounds from the season, and had what many players described as a "brutally honest" housekeeping session.

"We were reacting to what the other team was doing instead of playing our game," senior Paige Crozon said. "We had to confront our issues. I definitely think we grew for it."

Utah's last three games have included two losses to top-15 teams. The Utes were tied with Oregon State headed into the fourth quarter at home, and they were able to stay within single digits of the Huskies despite a star turn from Plum.

And Utah's one win was a dominating one: They pummeled Washington State in Pullman in what Roberts described as Utah's first "convincing win" in a while.

Utah's slump also forced Roberts to change. She's been including players more in game planning in recent weeks, asking them how they want to defend, how they want to attack certain teams and schemes. Instead of directing the players, she's tried taking a step back and figuring out what they're willing to do to save the season.

"I kinda put the onus on the players. What are you guys committed to doing?" Roberts said. "It's been simpler game plan wise, and the players have more ownership. ... You have to get creative when things aren't going well."

While it's late in the season to try to get on a roll, the Utes have to start Thursday against No. 5 Arizona State (18-11, 9-9), a physical, defense-oriented team that beat the Utes early in the Pac-12 schedule by 22.

That was then. The Utes hope their new mindset will carry them to a different result now.

"It was hard in the middle of conference, but I think now we're using it as fuel," junior Tanaeya Boclair said. "The season is nowhere close to being over."


Twitter: @kylegoon —

No. 12 seed Utah vs. No. 5 seed Arizona State

Pac-12 Conference tournament

Where • Key Arena, Seattle

When • 3 p.m. MST Thursday

TV • Pac-12 Networks

Radio • ESPN 700 AM

Records • Utah (16-13, 5-13); Arizona State (18-11, 9-9)






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