After playing its last three contests at home, the Utah Valley University women's basketball team makes a trip to the Northwest to face two clubs situated within the top three of the WAC standings. UVU gets the week underway when it faces preseason WAC favorite Seattle U at 8 p.m. MT on Thursday, then wraps things up with a trip to Moscow, Idaho, to face conference unbeaten Idaho Saturday at 3 p.m. MT.
The Redhawks and Vandals represent last season's two WAC champions. SU claimed the regular season title after piecing together a 15-3 conference record, but Idaho surged during the WAC Tournament to unseat the Redhawks in the championship game and take the league's automatic bid to the NCAAs.
"We're excited about the opportunity any time we get to play, but especially when we get to face a couple established teams that have really set the standard of competition in this league," UVU head coach Cathy Nixon said. "We want to measure ourselves against these types of programs."
Picked in the preseason to repeat as regular season champions, SU currently resides in third place coming into the week with an 11-12 record overall and an accompanying 6-4 WAC mark. Reigning Player of the Year Kacie Sowell continues to lead the Redhawks, averaging a near double-double with 15.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. She is coming off a 16-point, 12-rebound performance in Seattle's 86-81 loss at New Mexico State last Saturday.
The Redhawks represent one of the WAC's top defensive and rebounding squads. They rank second in the conference in field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to just 39.8 percent shooting this season. On the glass, SU paces the league in rebounding margin, owning a +4.2 advantage on the season, and ranks second in total defensive rebounds per game at 28.7. All said, Seattle U is the WAC's top team in defensive rebounding percentage, hauling in almost 70 percent of its opponent's misses on the defense end.
"Seattle is a very inside-oriented team," Nixon said. "Sowell is very good and is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. We will need to be strong defensively and limit their easy looks and second chances. We competed pretty well against them when we were here so hopefully we can match that energy and effort up there."
Utah Valley trails SU, 2-1, in the all-time series and fell in this season's first meeting back in mid-January. The Wolverines led at halftime but could not keep a resilient Redhawk team at bay in the second half, ultimately falling 75-67. UVU is also 0-1 at the Connolly Center, dropping a 70-41 decision in its first trip there in February 2012.
Awaiting the Wolverines on the trip's second leg is the league's hottest team, Idaho, at 10-0. The Vandals were just 7-7 in non-conference play but have hit their stride in league play, reeling off 10 straight conference victories and posting a conference-high +12.2 scoring margin along the way.
Idaho is averaging a league-best 74.4 points per game — a figure that leaps to 81.5 ppg in conference-only play. Powering that offensive onslaught is a team-leading 17.9 ppg from Player of the Year candidate Stacey Barr. A 5-foot-8 junior guard, Barr is scoring 20.1 ppg in conference play and is coming off a week in which she averaged 22 points and 11.5 rebounds in two more Vandal victories.
Senior forward Alyssa Charlston, a first team preseason All-WAC pick, is averaging 14.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg.
"We've seen a lot of Barr on tape and then when she played against us here and she's a player with a complete game," Nixon said. "She's physically and mentally strong and she runs that team. They have been playing some really good basketball and we're excited to test ourselves against them."
Barr and Charlston combined for 41 points in Idaho's 96-55 win over the Wolverines on Jan. 16. The Vandals shot 54 percent from the field as a team in that one, going 13-of-25 from beyond the arc and recording a 40-34 edge on the glass.
Despite a 4-18 record and 1-8 mark in WAC play, the Wolverines enter the road swing with some positive momentum having picked up a win at Chicago State before suffering three narrow defeats. Last week, UVU nearly avenged a 37-point loss to Grand Canyon earlier in the season when it took the Antelopes to the wire in Orem. After surrendering a nine-point lead early in the second half, the Wolverines cut an eight-point deficit to within one late in the game but couldn't conjure up the necessary stops to eclipse the discrepancy on the scoreboard.
Guard Katie Kuklok continues to lead the team in scoring at 17.2 ppg after recently returning from an injury. She scored 24 points against NM State in just her second game back the ailment. Rhaiah Spooner-Knight has scored in double figures in each of her last 11 games to run her season-long scoring average to 11.0 ppg, while Sam Loggins has tallied double digits in five of her last six.
Utah Valley will close out its home schedule next week when it hosts Kansas City and Chicago State at the UCCU Center. Saturday, Jan. 22's meeting with CSU is Senior Night as the Wolverines will honor the careers of their two seniors: guards Whitney Jenkins and Kyra Prause.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.
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