Women’s Basketball: Utah rolls through first round WNIT, prepares for Gonzaga

womens basketball 15 Justin Adams

The Utes are happy to be playing basketball again following their disappointing first-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament to Calf. Utah waited patiently as its Pac-12 counterparts finished out the tournament in Seattle several weeks ago to see if the team would receive an invitation to the WNIT. Utah was announced as one of the 32 at-large selections (teams who did not win their conferences) and paired with the Montana State Bobcats in the first round.

“We knew we were going to make the WNIT, but we found out [March 14th] who or where we’re going to play against Montana State, a very good Big Sky [Conference] team,” said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts.

For Utah fans, the matchup with the Big Sky Bobcats was a callback to the preseason, before Utah seemingly faced a nationally-ranked team every weekend. While the Bobcats certainly weren’t an opponent to sneeze at, boasting a 21-10 record on the season, 14-4 in conference, the Utes were battle-hardened and ready after playing in the strongest conference in the country for the last three months.

Utah opened the gates with an 11-3 run and never looked back, outscoring the Bobcats in every quarter. In the opening period of play, it was the Utah front court of junior forward Paige Crozon and sophomore center Emily Potter who carried the load, combining for all but two of Utah’s first quarter points. But the Bobcats hung close through the first period, trailing the Utes 18-14 after one.

After Montana State evened up the score, Utah found its rhythm. The Utes opened up a 12-0 run to put themselves back in the driver’s seat, and locked down the Bobcats on the defensive end as well. Montana State scored just seven points on 3-of-17 shooting from the floor through the entirety of the quarter. Where Crozon and Potter led the charge through the first quarter, it was a balanced attack that buoyed Utah through the second, as five Utes scored. Heading into the second half of play, Utah led Montana State 37-21.

Through the second half, Utah never took its foot off the pedal, outscoring the Bobcats 58-40 as each Ute who stepped on the court scored. Crozon led all scorers with 20 points, Potter posted yet another double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds, and senior sharpshooter Katie Kuklok tallied an efficient 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting from behind the three-point line. With a season as a healthy group under their belts and the bitter taste of defeat still lingering in their mouths from an early exit to the Pac 12 Tournament, Utah was locked in.

“Truthfully, I didn’t have a finish line in mind or an image of what that looked like,” Roberts said. “Certainly, I knew we had potential and I believe in these players, so I thought we had a shot to have a good year like we’ve had. It depended on staying healthy, which we did, and it depended on the players really buying in and trusting what we’re trying to do and working hard. We had some bumps in the road, and every team in America has those, but good teams roll through that. They don’t fold or start questioning what they’re doing. Adversity is inevitable through the course of a seven-month season.”

Utah had little time to celebrate its shellacking of Montana State on the Huntsman Center floor last Friday night, as the team heads to Spokane, Wash. to face Gonzaga in the second round. The Bulldogs posted a 19-13 record this season, 10-8 in conference, earning home-court advantage against the Utes.

While the Bulldogs will look to take advantage of playing on their home court, the Utes will look to parlay their success in round one of the WNIT into real momentum heading into round two on Monday night at 7 p.m. MST.

g.adams@dailyutahchronicle.com

@GriffDoug