The Utah women’s basketball team lives to play another day.
The Utes (23-13) defeated Kansas State (19-18) 54-46 in overtime in the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Wednesday evening, handing the Wildcats their first-ever home loss in WNIT play.
“We made just enough plays down the stretch to get the win,” said head coach Anthony Levrets. “I thought we had a really great game plan tonight. I’m really proud of our team.”
The guard-heavy Wildcats had just seven players dressed for the game, and juniors Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski took full advantage, recording 24 points and 13 rebounds and 18 points and 17 boards, respectively.
Utah got off to a hot start, scoring the first seven points while holding the Wildcats to just two field goals for the first 13 minutes of play. The Utes posted their largest lead of 14 points, 21-7, with 5:30 remaining in the first half, taking advantage of uncharacteristically poor shooting on the part of the Wildcats. Wicijowski recorded her double-double with 10 points and 11 boards before the midpoint, and the Utes held a 16-8 advantage in the paint through the first 20 minutes of play.
Kansas State chipped away at the lead as the Utes were hit with foul trouble and senseless turnovers throughout the second half. Utah finished with nearly as many giveaways (19) as field goals (20).
The Wildcats tied the game, 39-39, with 2:21 remaining when leading scorer Brittany Chambers grabbed a rebound and put back a layup. Neither team could score again following the shot, sending the game into an extra period.
“This is as good defensively as someone has played on us in a half all year,” Levrets said.
Plouffe and Wicijowski each corralled rebounds and hit buckets to give the Utes control in the final minutes, and then senior guard Rachel Messer scored her only points of the night with a 3-point dagger from the baseline with 1:44 left.
“We kept running the same stuff, we just made a couple more shots,” Levrets said of the extra five minutes. “Rachel made a huge 3, and that was the turning point.
“I think at this time of year, with both teams guarding each other really well, it was about who was going to make a shot. We just happened to make a shot at the right time, and then we defended and rebounded like we can.”
Utah shot 40 percent from the floor, including a 4-for-12 performance from beyond the arc, and was a perfect 10-for-10 from the foul line. The Wildcats, on the other hand, hit just three 3s on 27 attempts and were 27.6 percent from the floor. The Utes also out-rebounded Kansas State, grabbing 43 compared to just 28.
Chambers led the Wildcats with 16 points. It is the first time she had fewer than 21 during the WNIT.
“She is as good an offensive player as we’ve seen,” Levrets said about Chambers. “Iwa (Rodrigues) did an unbelievable job defending her, and our team defense behind it was pretty good too.”
The Utes will play the WNIT championship game at Drexel on Saturday at 1 p.m. Drexel defeated Florida, 67-57, in the other semifinal matchup.
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.
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