Utah Valley University begins its first foray into WAC play Saturday when it plays host to Bakersfield at 3 p.m. in the UCCU Center. The contest opens the 2014 portion of this season's schedule and brings to a close the Wolverines' season-long four-game homestand that began on Dec. 14.
UVU (3-10, 0-0 WAC) has had nearly a week to prepare for the conference opener after wrapping up non-conference play last Saturday with a dominant 89-49 win over New Orleans. The 40-point difference was the Wolverines' largest margin of victory against fellow Division I competition in program history. That win came on the heels of UVU's 59-56 triumph over Idaho State back on Dec. 20 — giving UVU a modest two-game winning streak and some positive momentum heading into the WAC opener Saturday.
"All season we've been a team that was on the verge of winning games and within reach of some wins, but I think we're beginning to learn the things we need to do to get ourselves on the positive side of the final score," 19-year head coach Cathy Nixon said. "We were able to implement those things over the last two games and you can tell we're beginning to mature as a team. We still need some more consistency in all areas, but we're getting better and hopefully gaining some momentum heading into January. January is such an important month in the pursuit of a conference championship and hopefully our girls are poised and up to the challenge."
True freshman Rhaiah Spooner-Knight led Utah Valley in scoring in both wins, including a 20-point, nine-rebound performance against UNO on Saturday. For her efforts, Spooner-Knight was recognized Monday as the WAC's Player of the Week, becoming the first Wolverine to earn the honor.
Joining Spooner-Knight in double figures were guards Katie Kuklok and Tina Doughty, posting 12 and 10 points apiece. Kuklok continues to lead the WAC in scoring at 19.6 ppg through the non-conference season. Furthermore, the sophomore transfer tops the league in 3-point field goal percentage (50.0), 3-pointers made per game (3.5) and free throw percentage (94.0).
Doughty comes into Saturday's game averaging 12.7 ppg, while Spooner-Knight is approaching double figures after her scoring average jumped to 9.2 ppg over the last three weeks. Redshirt freshman guard Karlee Kartchner paces the Wolverines on the glass at 7.2 rebounds per game, while Georgia Agnew has been the team's top distributor with 4.1 assists per outing.
While 2013-14 marks UVU's first season as a member of the WAC, the Wolverines are familiar with conference play after spending the past four seasons in the Great West Conference. Utah Valley went 21-21 in league play over that time but went out with a bang after going 7-1 in the GWC last year to clinch the regular season championship. Dating back to last season, the Wolverines have won four consecutive conference games. Bakersfield will be playing its first conference game as a Division I member after spending the last six seasons as an independent.
"We've anticipated this first WAC game for so long and we're so excited for the opportunity to pursue a WAC championship and compete at the WAC Tournament," Nixon said. "That being said, we know what it means to prepare for conference games and the mindset we need to have to be successful having had some similar experiences in the Great West. But there's certainly a great deal of anticipation in our locker room looking forward to Saturday and all that it means historically for our program."
Whereas UVU has had a week to prepare for Saturday's WAC opener, Bakersfield (6-6) enters the weekend having already taken the floor twice this week. The Roadrunners picked up a pair of wins in their final non-conference games, topping Fresno Pacific, 81-49, before surviving Cal State Northridge in overtime, 74-73.