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.
CSUB's two leading scorers, guards Tyonna Outland and Melissa Sweat, combined to score 55 points against the Matadors on Thursday night. Sweat put up a game high 23 points while Outland, a two-time WAC Player of the Week this season, scored 22.
Outland's 18.7 ppg leads the `Runners and ranks third in the WAC. The redshirt junior out of Compton, Calif., who was a second team Preseason All-WAC selection by the media, is also the team's second-leading rebounder at 5.5 rpg.
Sweat, a senior and Bakersfield native, has averaged 11.8 ppg this season and tallied her career high in points at CSUN on Thursday. Batabe Zemapare, a forward from Accra, Ghana, is the WAC's leader in rebounding. The 6-foot-2 forward is hauling in 11.8 rpg and is the only WAC player to average double-digit rebounds.
"We've gotten familiar with Bakersfield over the course of our transition to DI and into the WAC and they are always a team that's very athletic with good size," Nixon said. "We'll have to be very good on the defensive end in order to neutralize their speed and quickness within their offensive sets. A concerted, team effort on the defensive side is going to be crucial for us in every conference game we play this year, but Bakersfield will provide a very stiff challenge right away."
Bakersfield will be making its second consecutive trip to Orem after it visited Utah Valley on Feb. 27, 2013. That game, the second of a home-and-home series between the two programs, went the way of the Wolverines who pulled out a 72-69 win at the UCCU Center. That victory atoned for a 67-65 loss at CSUB earlier that season and pushed the Wolverines' all-time record against the `Runners to 2-5.
UVU and CSUB have never met in conference play, although the two programs did square off at the Division I Independent Championship back in March 2008. Bakersfield won that game, 76-53, to claim the season series, 2-1.
The Wolverines will continue conference play on the road next weekend when they travel to Phoenix to face Grand Canyon at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.