Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah women's interim head coach Anthony Levrets has said all along his team would be playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
With two upset victories in two days last weekend over teams the Utes had lost to twice each during the regular season to become the first fifth-place team to ever win the women's Mountain West Conference tournament, he was right, and his team has been rewarded for it.
"Through the ups and downs and injuries and all kinds of adversity this season, the (team) never stopped believing and competing," Levrets said minutes after Utah (18-16) found out it had earned a No. 15 seed and the chance to play No. 2 Notre Dame (26-7), a Big East at-large team, at the Huntsman Center in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
"Just making it to the NCAAs is special," he added, "but playing on our own court, I can't imagine anything better."
Junior point Janita Badon added that, aside from playing on a familiar floor, the Utes have another slight advantage: "People underestimate how hard it is to run here," she said, referring to the 3,501-foot difference in elevation between Salt Lake City and South Bend, Indiana.
Though the coach and his players admitted they don't yet know much about Notre Dame, which is currently ranked seventh in the coaches' poll and ninth by the Associated Press, they said they will be ready to put on a good show.
"All I know about Notre Dame is that they are a good team," Levrets said. "My assistants are already downstairs grabbing film so we can get to know them.
"It doesn't matter who you play at this point, it is going to be a good team. Either you are good all year long, like Notre Dame has been, or you get hot at the end of the season, as we have done. We have been close in almost every game. We are comfortable in close games, so hopefully that will be the case (against Notre Dame)."
The Fighting Irish are led by the scoring of junior guard Natalie Novosel, who is averaging 14.6 points per game this season, and sophomore guard Skylar Diggins, with 14.2 points per game.
"I think we need to look at it as a neutral game," Novosel said of playing the lower-seeded Utes on their home court. "It being on their court of course gives some advantage, but we need to step back and look at it like a regular NCAA tournament game."
Head coach Muffet McGraw said, "We're excited Utah is in the tournament because they'll draw a great crowd. We like to play in an atmosphere where there are a lot of people there, so we're excited about playing at Utah," head coach Muffet McGraw said.
"Salt Lake City is a place we've never been so it will be a great experience for us," she added. "This week, our focus is all about Utah. They're a very good team. I happened to watch their game the other night in their conference tournament. It's going to be a really good game."
This year marks the 16th consecutive season Notre Dame has played in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish are 27-16 all time in the tournament and have won 13 of their 15 NCAA first-round games.
Devereaux Peters, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, is also scoring in double-digits for the Irish with 11.6 points, as well as leading the team with 7.2 rebounds and a team-high 58 blocks this season.
"My teammate was just telling my they (Notre Dame) have a pretty good shot-blocker and I like to go to the rim," said Badon, the Utes' 5-foot-7 point guard, "so we'll have figure that out."
Freshman forward Michelle Plouffe and sophomore forward Taryn Wicijowski, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, both played with Notre Dame freshman Natalie Achonwa on the Canada Junior National Team during high school. Achonwa, who has played in all 33 games this season, is averaging 7.3 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
"I'm excited to match up against her," Plouffe said, adding, "It's going to be a challenge. We need to get focused, get prepared and get ready for this weekend."
The Utes are led by the scoring of sophomore guard Iwalani Rodrigues (14.7 ppg), Plouffe (13.9) and Badon (12.6), each of whom earned All-Tournament honors in last week's MWC championship run.
"We're playing well," Levrets said. "We wouldn't be here if we weren't playing well. That's an advantage for us. These kids think they can win — they're not just happy to be here. They are playing with a lot of confidence. Defense is very important to our success, and we will continue to focus on that."
Utah is making its 17th appearance in the NCAA tournament, that last time was in 2009, and is 9-16 overall in NCAA Tournament games. The last time Utah hosted the first and second rounds was in 2001, when the Utes were a No. 5 seed and beat Fairfield (79-57) and Iowa (78-69) to reach the Sweet 16, where they lost to Notre Dame, 69-54.
Utah has played Notre Dame one other time, a regular season game in 2006, which the Fighting Irish won.
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