SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah women’s basketball team said goodbye to its seniors — and its trainer — with a double-digit victory in the final home game of the season Sunday afternoon.
The Utes beat Washington State 59-47 for their fifth win in six games, improving to 16-11 on the season and 7-9 in the Pac-12.
“This is not a 10-game season. It’s not a 20-game season. It’s hopefully a 33-, 34-, 35-game season,” Utah coach Anthony Levrets said, referring to the Utes’ struggles to start conference play, in which they played seven ranked teams in 10 games.
“Everything equals itself out and you just have to trust in who you are and what you do as a player. We’ve done a great job at hanging in there.”
The Cougars jumped out to a quick lead and maintained a 13-8 advantage midway through the first half. However, Utah rallied following the next media timeout, and closed the half on a 17-4 run. Washington State closed the gap to four points one more time, but the Utes never gave up the lead again.
The Utes shot 42.9 percent from the floor and outrebounded Washington State 45-24.
“Over the years here we’ve always rebounded well,” Levrets said. “It’s been difficult in this league because night in and night out we’re not the bigger, stronger, faster team. We’ve really, really worked at technique, getting better at it, and I think it’s paying off.”
Junior Taryn Wicijowski led Utah with 22 points and nine rebounds and junior Michelle Plouffe added 11 points and five assists. Washington State was led by Lia Galdeira, who scored 14 points.
Utah honored its four seniors —Iwalani Rodrigues, Rachel Messer, Chelsea Bridgewater and Rita Sitivi — prior to the game, and each spent time on the court in their final game at the Huntsman Center.
Rodrigues excelled, scoring 17 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor. She also had seven rebounds, five assists and a block. Messer scored three points and grabbed three boards.
“Those kids have given an unbelievable amount to this program. I have a lot of respect for both of them,” Levrets said of Bridgewater, who had two points and three boards, and Sitivi, who had a board.
“Rita has had a tough time because of injury; she is an unbelievable human being to be around,” he added. “And Chelsea is a former walk-on from Provo. She is a delight to be around. Her enthusiasm for the game and life have rubbed off on me.”
After the game, the Utes honored exiting athletic trainer Deb Willardson, who is retiring after 36 years of service to the university.
“I have no idea how we are going to replace her,” Levrets said. “This program has only known Deb for 36 years. It’s going to be really strange.”
The Utah athletic department presented Willardson with a fly-fishing trip to thank her for all she has done.
“She is one of the most caring people I have ever met in my life, and for everybody and everything,” Levrets added. “Hopefully she goes and catches a lot of big trout over the next few years.”
The Utes have two conference games remaining — a visit to Oregon State on Friday and then to Oregon on Sunday. The Pac-12 tournament will take place in Seattle the following weekend.
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org