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There was frustration. There was disappointment. There was the sense that this Utah women's basketball team wasn't reaching its ceiling.
With six consecutive defeats at the start of Pac-12 play, the season was on the brink of collapse for the Utes. Now, this is a team two games away from a postseason title. This was a season that once seemed destined to end prematurely. Now, this team will play a game in the month of April for the first time in school history.
On Wednesday night, Utah will face Kansas State in a WNIT semifinal, one that could lead to a title game appearance for the Utes. Instead of disappointment, this team has elicited pride. Instead of a season on the brink, it's a team with six wins in its last seven games. These Utes are living up to the adage that you want to be playing your best when it matters most, and then some.
"We're going to have a tough time," Utah coach Anthony Levrets said. "Kansas State is a really hot team, and they are a good team. They have good players and it's a difficult environment to play in. But when the ball is thrown into the air, we're going to find a way to compete. That's the fun part of this."
The anatomy of Utah's four-game winning streak can be traced to an unyielding defense and the inside duo of Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski. The Utes have faced difficult circumstance and thrived. Of the four games, three of the wins have come away from the Huntsman Center. A team used to a spread-out schedule, Utah won three games in the span of seven days. They've done this with just two seniors Iwalani Rodrigues and Rachel Messer making meaningful contributions. They've done it with a freshman point guard in Danielle Rodriguez.
"We were playing good teams at the start of the Pac-12 season," Plouffe said. "It was tough because it seemed like we weren't ever going to dig ourselves out of the hole. We were a little frustrated, but we never lost belief in each other. That was the biggest thing. We always thought that we were going to put a run of really good basketball together at some point."
That point is now. Wicijowski and Plouffe have been difficult to deal with for everyone they've played in this tournament. Unlike the regular season, when perimeter shooting came at a premium, the Utes have made teams pay for collapsing in the paint.
The turnovers were once an issue. Now, Utah's taking care of the ball. Rebounding has been a big plus, as well. Essentially, the Utes are doing everything it takes to get wins.
"To do what we've done these last few weeks, you can't do without kids who are tough," Levrets said. "These kids have a fortitude about them."
WNIT Utah at K-State
O At Manhattan, Kan.
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m.
TV • None
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 22-13; Kansas State 19-17
Series history • Utah leads 3-2
Last meeting • Utah 76, Kansas State 58 (Nov. 28, 1998)
About the Utes • Utah is on a four-game winning streak. … The Utes have won three of their four games in the tournament on the road. … Utah defeated Saint Mary's on Saturday to advance to the semifinals.
About the Wildcats • Head coach Deb Patterson is 0-2 lifetime against Utah. …Brittany Chambers is one of the best players in the country and an All-American candidate.