MORAGA, Calif. — The University of Utah women's basketball team is one of four teams remaining in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, as the Utes defeated Saint Mary's, 58-55, on Saturday afternoon.
The Utes will play at Kansas State on Wednesday, April 3, at 6 p.m. MDT, with the winner advancing to the WNIT championship game.
Utah was led by Michelle Plouffe, who scored 20 points with eight rebounds. Iwalani Rodrigues tallied 14 points with seven rebounds.
The Utes shot 47 percent, including 50 percent in the second half. Utah was buoyed by its 3-point shooting, going 11-of-22 from behind the arc. Saint Mary's was strong on the glass, outrebounding Utah 39-28, and went 15-of-17 from the free-throw line.
"We played an incredibly gritty game today, completely different than the last game we played," Utah head coach Anthony Levrets said. "We shot the basketball incredibly well early in the game and then defended unbelievably well down the stretch to finish it out. I couldn't be prouder and happier for our kids."
The Utes led by as many as 10 points after hitting eight 3s in the first half, and led 31-39 at halftime paced by 10 first-half points from Rodrigues.
Utah was paced in the second half by Plouffe, who had 15 points after intermission. Although Saint Mary's tied the game right off the bat with a pair of free throws coming out of the locker room, Utah continued where it left off by scoring 10 of the next 12 points to take an eight-point lead, 41-33, with 16 minutes remaining.
Saint Mary's continued to answer Utah's baskets, preventing the Utes from pulling away. Utah led by three points after a layup from Plouffe, 50-47, and a Gaels free throw and 3-pointer pushed Saint Mary's into the lead, 51-50, with eight minutes remaining.
However, the 3-pointer was the final field goal that Saint Mary's would make in the game, as it would go the final eight minutes without making a shot from the field. Plouffe answered with six straight points for Utah, giving the Utes a five-point lead with five minutes left, 56-51. Although the Gaels kept the lead close with free throws down the stretch, the Utes held on to the lead with tough defense.
"(Saint Mary's is) a very unique team in that they run so many wing on-ball screens, and one of the strengths of our defense is guarding wing pick-on-ball," Levrets said. "We stuck with our game plan, and adjusted a little bit as they adjusted what they were doing, but our kids stayed true to it, and did it unbelievably well. As the game goes on, it gets harder and harder to make contested shots, and we did a great job making sure their shots were contested."
Utah is now 4-0 in this year's WNIT, defeating Long Beach State, San Diego, Pacific and Saint Mary's. Three of the four games have been on the road. The Utes played three games this week, beginning with San Diego on Monday, Pacific on Thursday and Saint Mary's on Saturday.
"We are tough," Levrets said. "We have managed to win three road games in this tournament. We have also won three games in one week — two of three on the road. To do that you have to have kids that are tough. You're not going to always feel good, physically, when you are playing like this, but they have a fortitude about them that showed up today, especially down the stretch when we needed to make some defensive plays."