Utah took its talents to Spokane, Wash. on Monday night, where it battled Gonzaga for a spot in the Sweet 16 of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. The Utes took control of the game on the Zags’ home floor and never relented, despite several runs by the Bulldogs, to secure a 92-77 victory that will vault them into the third round of the WNIT.
“This is a tough place to play,” said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts. “We kind of gave ourselves a good enough cushion there in the third quarter to where it never got closer than eight, but it felt like closer with this crowd. It felt like the momentum was on the fence there. The one thing that I really want is our team to show toughness, and we did that tonight.”
Junior forward Paige Crozon led all scorers with 22 points on just eight shot attempts all night. As the Bulldogs crowded the paint and worked to shut down the Utes’ leading scorer Emily Potter, Crozon found a rhythm, spotting up behind the three-point line, stretching the defense and making the Bulldogs pay for overplaying Potter. Crozon’s ability to both shoot from long range and put the ball on the floor when defenders overplay has unlocked Utah’s offense all year, and the Canadian front court tandem of Potter and Crozon that stretches defenses so thin was in full force against the Bulldogs on Monday night.
Gonzaga jumped on the Utes early, outscoring Utah 13-5 in the opening minutes. But Utah’s backcourt of senior Dani Rodriguez and Malia Nawahine buckled down and squeezed the life out of the McCarthy Athletic Center, as they put together a 9-0 run. Both teams went tic for tac through the remainder of the first quarter, and as the period ended, neither team held the advantage, 20-20.
Again the Bulldogs seemed to be riding the momentum of their home crowd to slowly work an edge over the Utes. Midway through the second period, Gonzaga cobbled together a 12-5 run and took a 34-32 edge over Utah.
But the Utes closed the period strong, not allowing the Bulldogs enough momentum to crest. In the final four minutes of the first half, Utah came off the ropes with a barrage of buckets, an 11-2 run to close the period, including two three-pointers from sophomore wing Devri Owens.
The Utes then rode the momentum of their strong first half finish to open the second, outscoring the Bulldogs 25-18 in the third period. Heading into the fourth quarter, Utah held a 14-point cushion on Gonzaga and had to just finish out the final 10 minutes of play to advance to the Sweet 16.
The Bulldogs didn’t go without bark or bite though, as they opened the final period on a 7-1 run. The Bulldogs then traded blows with the Utes, even trimming the Utah lead to just eight as the game clock dwindled, three minutes remaining. The McCarthy Athletic Center crowd willed the Bulldogs to one final push, but Utah held on, sealing the victory 92-77.
With their second round victory over Gonzaga, the Utes now advance to the third round in which they will face a familiar foe in Oregon. The Ducks swept the Utes 2-0 in the regular season this year, but if they are going to beat Utah again on Wednesday, they’ll have to do so without their leading scorer and rebounder, Jillian Alleyne.
Alleyne tore her ACL late last month, ending her senior season with the Ducks — a season marked by broken records, individual accolades and the turned heads of WNBA scouts.
“Obviously its never fun when another team’s player is hurt … I won’t get that third matchup with Alleyne. [But] I’m excited to get another chance at [the Ducks],” Potter said.
Utah will now travel to Eugene, where they will face the Ducks on their home floor Wednesday night.