Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
LAS VEGAS — Beating your rival at the buzzer in the semifinals is one thing. Winning a championship is quite another.
In a span of two days, the University of Utah women's basketball team experienced both — capping things off with a 52-47 overtime victory over TCU to win the Mountain West Conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"A championship is no comparison to any regular game," said Utah guard Janita Badon. "Cutting down the nets, getting the hats, the shirts. I like free stuff."
Badon dished out seven assists in the championship game and was named tournament MVP.
Freshman Michelle Plouffe, however, stole the show for the second straight game. A day after hitting the winning shot against BYU, the forward from Canada provided even more late-game heroics for Utah. She scored the Utes' final eight points, including a pair of free throws with 14.5 seconds remaining, to seal the deal.
"I just tried to give it my all and do what I could for my team," said Plouffe, who scored 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in 41 minutes of action.
After helping her teammates cut down the nets at the Thomas & Mack Center, Plouffe acknowledged how special her past two games have been.
"It's just all been really fun, and I've been able to spend it with such a great group of girls and a great coaching staff," she said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."
Winning the title, Plouffe added, is an awesome feeling.
"We are Mountain West Conference champions," she screamed. "I'm pumped."
Things didn't come easy, however.
Despite opening the game with a 16-2 run, the Utes eventually found themselves in a battle. TCU wiped away the deficit and took its first lead, at 38-37, with just 3:51 remaining in regulation.
Plouffe later hit a 3-pointer to put Utah ahead by two with 1:14 to go. The Horned Frogs, though, wound up forcing overtime when a layup by Breisha Wynn evened things up with 10 seconds remaining.
By game's end, the lead changed hands six times and the score was tied on five occasions.
"We just kept fighting back," Plouffe said. "We knew they were going to make a run for it, and we were able to keep our composure."
In doing so, the fifth-seeded Utes became the lowest seed ever to win the MWC women's tournament. They'll host first- and second-round NCAA games next week.
"I am ready to go home," said Utah coach Anthony Levrets, whose team has been in Las Vegas since March 4. "Yes, I'm ready to sleep in my own bed and then have a nice day off."
And then, he added, get back to work Monday night when the Utes find out who they play in the Big Dance.
"We just want this year to keep going," Levrets said. "They do not know how to give up."
After closing out the regular season with a 51-47 loss at UNLV, the Utes stayed in town and reeled off tournament wins against UNLV (55-44), Air Force (70-55), BYU (50-49) and TCU.
At least one postseason game in the Huntsman Center.
"That's exciting. You go 4-0 at somebody else's home, then you go home and actually get to play there with your fans," Badon said. "It's just exciting. Words can't explain how excited I am."
GAME NOTES: Pac-12 bound Utah closed out MWC play with its fourth tournament title. The other crowns came in 2000, 2006 and 2009. In all, the Utes reached the finals seven times in 12 years. ... Iwalani Rodrigues finished with 13 points for Utah. She also had three blocks and three steals. Badon, Plouffe amd Rodrigues made the MWC all-tournament team. ... Helena Sverrisdottir and Delisa Gross topped TCU with 10 points apiece. ... Saturday's attendance was 4,305.
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