Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Five rows up and five seats in sat Elaine Elliott, looking entirely at ease.
"This," she said, pointing to her seat at the Huntsman Center, "is the easiest seat."
"And that," she gestured toward the bench, "is the hardest place to be."
She didn't actually coach the Ute women's basketball team this season for the first time in 32 years with the program. Still, her footprints were obvious during their 67-54 NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame, Saturday. For instance, the way they kept coming. And the way they forced the second-seeded Irish to take bad shots. Plus, the way they hammered the Irish on the boards.
And especially the way they acted: as though they had the right to be there.
"I think that's the expectation of what our program is," Elliott said.
Never mind they had to overcome 16 losses and win four straight games in the Mountain West Conference tournament just to get the bid. Once there, they got downright stubborn.
That's not to dismiss interim coach Anthony Levrets, who stepped in last spring when a burned-out, shell-shocked Elliott called a cease fire. She said she wanted some space. Whether that is a temporary condition is still uncertain. She hasn't officially announced she's retiring, but she hasn't said she's coming back, either. If her mellow mood Saturday was any indication, it's hello to book clubs, hiking expeditions and sleeping late.
"That's the difference," she said when asked if she gets butterflies watching from the stands. "There's no nervousness and no stress. And you have all the answers up here."
While not everyone in Utah knows Elliott, she's certainly no flyweight. She coached the Utes to 15 NCAA Tournament appearances, including one trip to the Elite Eight and two to the Sweet 16. She also won 15 conference titles and had 26 winning seasons. She was named Utah Sportsperson of the year in 2001 by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Utah State Chapter.
But it didn't come without tons of worry and fitful sleep. So on an April day last year, she held a press conference to say she was calling a timeout. In a way, the timing was perfect. When this season came, a torn ACL to preseason all-conference forward Taryn Wicijowski ambushed Levrets' team in November. Soon the Utes were struggling, losing four of five and six of eight. They were equally unpredictable in MWC play, finishing tied for fourth.
Then came the conference tournament and something clicked — and it wasn't just Elliott turning off her lights. The Utes caught fire. They had made the NCAA field again, despite a 14-16 record at the end of the regular season.
Saturday they were over-matched; there was no logical reason they should have been close. Yet they never let it get entirely out of reach. Elliott sat in the stands with other Ute fans, cheering at times, analyzing at others.
"I found myself wanting to get after those stripes (officials)," she said.
She did her best to act like she hadn't been the team's head coach for 27 years, standing and clapping when the fight song was played. Sometimes she was high-fiving those nearby, at other times breaking down the Irish in her mind. Afterward she admitted though she hadn't decided whether to retire, an announcement would be forthcoming.
One thing she does know: the nights aren't nearly so long.
"I'm gonna sleep tonight," she said.
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