We challenged them at halftime and they responded and played one of our best halves of the year. I'm proud of our kids. —Utah head coach Anthony Levrets
SALT LAKE CITY — Before Thursday night, the Utah women's basketball team had played every major-college team in the state except Utah State. The Utes defeated Weber State, Southern Utah and Utah Valley and lost to BYU.
It took the WNIT tournament to get the Utes and Aggies together and thanks to a strong second-half comeback, the Utes prevailed 69-58 at the Huntsman Center.
With the victory, the Utes (16-15) will play Washington in the WNIT second round, Sunday at noon in Seattle. Earlier this year, the Utes knocked off the Huskies 49-36 in overtime in Seattle.
The Utes are known for their defense, but it was their offense that was impressive Thursday as they put up 45 points in the second half and 54 points over the final 22 minutes of the game.
The balanced Utes put five players in double figures, led by inside players Taryn Wicijowski and Michelle Plouffe with 15 points apiece. Iwalani Rodrigues scored 13, Rachel Messer chipped in 11 and Cheyenne Wilson added 10 points.
After his team hadn't played for more than a week, Utah coach Anthony Levrets said he wondered if they knew it was time to play basketball after the way they started the game. They fell behind by 14 points and were scoring less than a point minute over the first 18 minutes.
"We challenged them at halftime and they responded and played one of our best halves of the year," Levrets said. "I'm proud of our kids."
The Aggies had dominated the first half, taking a 29-15 with 2:38 left. At that point it looked like the Utes wouldn't even make it to 20 by halftime, but a 3-pointer by Wilson and a pair of three-point plays inside by Wicijowski pulled the Utes within seven at 31-24.
"That was really big," said Levrets of the 9-2 run in the final two minutes.
"When you don't see a zone that much it takes awhile to adjust to it," he said. "The first half it bothered us a little bit, but we did a great job of attacking it in the second half. We got it inside, got it outside, got offensive rebound and got enough threes."
It took the Utes less than five minutes to take the lead for good as back-to-back layups by Rodrigues, who was playing point guard in place of injured Janita Badon. Midway through the half, the Utes had extended their lead to 52-40 and they cruised home from there.
The Utes did a good job defending the Aggies' top two scorers, Devyn Christensen and Ashlee Brown, who were both averaging 15 points coming into the game. Christensen was held to nine points on 3 of 9 shooting, while Brown scored 14 on just 5 of 20 from the field.
"I think Utah did a better job of executing their game plan," said USU coach Raegan Pebley. "In the first half we did a better job of dictating the pace, but in the second half, they worked the ball more and got on the offensive boards more, so credit to them."
The Utes ended up with a 47-35 edge on the boards as Wicijowski pulled down 11, Plouffe had nine, Rodrigues eight and Messer seven.
GAME NOTES: The Aggies finished the season with a 21-10 record. They won in the first round of the WNIT last year and lost in the second round. … This is Utah's sixth WNIT appearance. In 2010, they defeated Saint Mary's before losing to eventual champion Cal in the second round. … Washington defeated Cal Poly 90-71 Wednesday night to advance to the second round.