The Utah women’s basketball team made program history with its unexpected run through the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
In a six-game span, the Utes (23-14, 8-10) played their first ever games in April, recorded their longest season of 37 games, and reached their first postseason championship contest aside from conference tournaments.
Unfortunately, Utah left one thing undone for next season’s squad to strive for, as it lost a heartbreaker to the Drexel Dragons (28-10, 14-5), 46-43, at the Daskalakis Athletic Center in Philadelphia in the WNIT title game Saturday afternoon.
“I am really proud of our kids,” said head coach Anthony Levrets. “They have shown amazing grit and intestinal fortitude to get to this point.”
With 26.5 seconds left, Drexel star guard Hollie Mershon created a clear shot with a pump fake and then banked in the go-ahead basket, 44-43. The Utes committed a turnover on their ensuing possession, and were then forced to foul to get the ball back.
Mershon hit two free throws and Utah forward Michelle Plouffe missed a long 3-point-attempt at the buzzer.
“We lost the game, but what they (the Utah players) did in order to get here is just incredible,” Levrets added. “Both teams played well. Drexel just made one more shot.”
The halftime stat lines were mirror images and both teams' respective star players, Plouffe and Mershon, were limited to just three and two points, respectively.
The Utes had scoring from six different players to combat the suffocating defense on Plouffe, and Utah held a three-point edge, 24-21, at the midpoint.
The Utes methodically picked apart the Dragons' man defense until Drexel coach Denise Dillon implemented a variety of zone defenses, igniting a 14-2 scoring run across a seven-minute span in the second half.
Utah responded and took the lead back with three minutes remaining, but could not regain momentum.
“We had a tough time getting the ball inside,” Levrets said. “Against the zones, we have to move the ball and we have to get the ball inside. We did, but just not enough.”
Plouffe finished with nine points, 14 rebounds and was 2-for-4 from 3-point range, while forward Taryn Wicijowski added nine points and nine boards.
Senior guard Iwalani Rodrigues led the Utes with 12 points, two 3s and five rebounds. She held Mershon to 14 points in an exhausting 40-minute sprint.
“Her tired D is better than someone else fresh,” Levrets said of Rodrigues' defense, noting that she has drawn the best opposing player all season.
“She didn’t think much about that end of the floor when she first got here. We had to convince her to focus there,” Levrets said. “She has really grown, and we would not be here if it wasn’t for her.”
Forward Taylor Wootton scored 12 of the Dragons’ 21 first-half points and then finished with a team-high 16 points along with six boards.
Utah sophomore Cheyenne Wilson contributed eight points with two 3-pointers and Ciera Dunbar and Danielle Rodriguez added three and two points, respectively.
Even though the Utes lost their final game of the season, Levrets was pleased with his team’s effort in the title matchup and throughout the entire season.
“These kids are tough,” he said. “I am so proud to have had the opportunity to work with this group of people.”
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: email@example.com