All season long, the strength of the University of Utah women's basketball team has been its shooting. Unfortunately for the Lady Utes, their shooting touch abandoned them at the worst possible time - in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The result was was a 67-53 loss to 16th-ranked UNLV at the tiny UNLV South Gym. The game was played there instead of the Thomas and Mack Center next door, because the famous group "Little Feat" was performing.Welcome to the NCAAs.
So an overflowing crowd of approximately 1,000 fans crammed into a gym that makes most local high school gyms look huge. All but the small group of Ute fans went home happy as the Lady Rebels, 26-6, now advance to NCAA second round play Saturday against Colorado in Boulder.
For the Lady Utes, who finished their season at 24-6, it marked their fourth straight loss in NCAA action without a win. But afterward, Coach Elaine Elliott was philisophical in defeat.
"The hard part about the NCAA tournament is that everybody except the winner ends with a loss," she said. "We always have to remember all the other accomplishments we had this season and I reminded the team that in the locker room."
While the Lady Utes could only manage 32.3 percent shooting, their worst of the season and well below their 48 percent average, UNLV hit 49 percent, which compensated for its 29 turnovers. Leading the way for the Rebels was 6-3 forward Pauline Jordan - no relation to Michael - who scored 21 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. Her twin sister Geannine, scored 11 points while Vicki Lander had 12 on perfect 6-for-6 field goal shooting.
For Utah, Kristi Smith came off the bench to keep her team in the game with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Cindy Lindsay added 12 points, but made only 5 of 13 from the field. The Utes' leading scorer, Gina Butters, was ice-cold, making just 3 of her 13 tries for 8 points.
"I just wasn't hitting," said Butters one of three seniors on the team. "I didn't feel like I got into the flow shooting-wise. It just wasn't dropping tonight."
Part of the problem with the Lady Utes' shooting was the defensive presence of the Lady Rebels, who had a front line measuring 6-6, 6-3 and 5-10. UNLV blocked three of Utah's first four shots and although the final stats showed just six blocked shots, it seemed more like 16. The intimidation factor had to have affected Utah's shooting.
The Lady Utes came out smokin', racing to a 9-2 lead in the first three and a half minutes of the game against the mistake-prone Rebels, who had five turnovers in that time.
"I think we were kind of nervous at the first," said UNLV Coach Jim Bolla. "We were just too cautious about doing things and were hesitating too much."
But the Rebels finally got untracked and took a 10-9 lead as Utah went scoreless for more than four minutes.
"I thought we lost our concentration for a period of time where we had a problem zeroing in on what we wanted to do," said Elliott.
The UNLV lead reached 16-11 before the Lady Utes came back to regain the advantage at 21-20 on back-to-back baskets by Lindsay. The Lady Utes' last lead of the night came with 2:26 left after a Butters' steal made it 25-24. However, they missed their final three shots of the half, committed a pair of turnovers and UNLV went into halftime with a 30-25 lead and momentum.
To start the second half, the Rebels started off on an 8-2 run, as Jordan, who had scored only six points in the first half, got warmed up.
"I don't want to take anything away from them," said Jordan, "but our last trip (to the Big West tournament) took so much out of me. At halftime the coaches said I had to pick up the pace."
The Rebel lead stayed between 10 and 14 until the scrappy Utes got within eight at 58-50 with 2:36 left on an inside basket by Sheri Snow. Thirty seconds later, Smith had a chance to cut the lead even further, but missed the first of a one-and-one. From there the Lady Rebs sewed it up at the foul line, while the Utes fired up 3-pointers without success.
"I think you have to give them a lot of credit," said Bolla of Utah. "They are a very well-coached team and they ran their offense very well. I was worried when they got it under 10 in the last two minutes."
The Lady Utes, whose record was the third best in their history, will lose three starters from this year's team - Lindsay, Butters and Stephie Watrin. But Elliott is optimistic about the future, since her other eight players return. Starters Brenda Alcorn and Melanee Brooks are both sophomores as is Smith, who was the third leading scorer on the team this year. And Karen Alcorn, perhaps the most heralded Lady Ute recruit ever, has three years remaining.