Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Over the last 18 days, the Utah women’s basketball team has traveled over 6,200 miles by plane and spent another 15 hours on a bus. It has won five games in two weeks, four of them on the road and two of them in overtime.
Indeed, the Utes (23-13, 8-10) have literally hit the road to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Final Four, culminating in the championship game at Drexel University at 1 p.m. Saturday.
It may not be the NCAA tournament, but it is a big game on a big stage, and head coach Anthony Levrets is pleased he and his team have earned the right to be a part of it.
“This is a special opportunity,” Levrets said. “It’s not every year you get to play for a championship.”
Levrets added “the tournament has been a microcosm” of the Utes’ five-month-long season, and the title game is an exclamation point on the wild roller coaster it has been.
The team started out with seven straight wins and big expectations before hitting a wall at the start of conference play. The Pac-12 boasted four Top 25 teams throughout the season — including California, which plays Louisville Saturday in the NCAA Final Four — and Utah lost eight of its first 10 conference games as it waded through the top-heavy schedule.
“That was incredibly tough emotionally,” Levrets said of those January games. “We were playing well against good teams but we were losing, and each time it felt like we were giving away opportunities.”
The Utes rebounded during the second half of the Pac-12 schedule, finishing sixth overall, and did what their coach had been asking of them all season — to play their best basketball in March.
“Credit to them for being resilient,” Levrets said of his players, who won six of their final nine games to earn the WNIT bid and play the program’s longest season of 37 games. “They have come back and really taken advantage of this opportunity.”
The Utes have defeated Long Beach State, San Diego, Pacific, Saint Mary’s, and Kansas State to earn their spot in the title game, and now they get to face an opponent that plays a very similar style to their own.
“They are a motion team, just like us,” Levrets said of the Drexel Dragons. “They run the same system but look for different ways to score. We play inside-out where they play outside-in.”
Drexel University is a private research school of 23,500 students in Philadelphia. The Dragons finished the season 27-10 overall and 14-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association. They played three of five tournament games at home, defeating Iona, Harvard, Bowling Green, Auburn and Florida on their path to the WNIT championship.
The Dragons score 60.2 points per game and shoot 41.8 percent from the floor. Drexel is led by the play of guard Hollie Mershon, who averages 19.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, and will have the opportunity to get to know Utah’s Iwalani Rodrigues very well.
“It’s been fun to watch Iwa go from a scorer and a good defender to being a really great defender,” Levrets said of his senior guard, who contained Kansas State’s leading scorer, Brittany Chambers, in the semifinals Wednesday.
“(Mershon) is very different from who (Rodrigues) saw the other night. She scores in a variety of ways, but it will be a good matchup.”
Rodrigues averages 11.5 points and 4.6 rebounds a game for the Utes, and has drawn the key defensive assignment throughout the season.
Drexel forward Taylor Wootton averages 11.9 points and is a 3-point shooting threat at 41.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Wootton will have her hands full against AP All-American honorable mention Michelle Plouffe, who leads all Utah scorers with 17.4 points and 9.3 boards, and all-Pac-12 honorable mention Taryn Wicijowski, who scores 14.4 points per game along with 7.2 rebounds.
“They just have to be themselves — score and defend and rebound like they can,” Levrets said of what he needs from his 6-foot-4 posts. “They are defended differently every night, and they are intelligent players who know how to adjust.”
Other key contributors to the Utes’ cause are starting guards Rachel Messer, a senior, and Danielle Rodriguez, a freshman, along with Provo’s own Chelsea Bridgewater. The trio adds an additional 8.1 points per game.
“Our biggest advantage here is our kids being so smart and being able to implement and execute a game plan on such short notice no matter who we are playing,” Levrets said. “All the travel has been brutal, but it has made the winning that much more rewarding. And no matter what, win or lose, we know we played our tails off.”
Utes on the air
Utah at Drexel
Saturday, April 6, 1 p.m.
Radio: ESPN 700
TV: CBS Sports Network
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
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