Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Utah's Leilani Mitchell

Utah's unblemished run through league play is one thing, duplicating it in the Mountain West Conference tournament is quite another — or so history says.

No women's team has ever one won the conference's automatic NCAA berth, which is awarded to the postseason tourney champion, with fewer than two losses to league foes. New Mexico set the standard by going 15-2 against the MWC in consecutive years while winning titles in 2004 and 2005.

Top seeds have not fared well. Only Utah (2000) and those two Lobo teams managed to win the conference tournament as well. Utah's undefeated team in 2004 got knocked off by BYU in the 2001 semifinals.

"There's a lot of energy expended to be good for two months. It's not easy to do it again," said Utah coach Elaine Elliott, who noted that it's a difficult task to play any team three times in the same season. "I don't think it's unusual that you've seen that. It will be a big challenge for us to get that championship. But that's OK. We'll take it on."

The 15th-ranked Utes (27-3, 16-0) are poised to make history. They're taking a 22-game winning streak to Las Vegas.

Even so, Elliott considers the tournament somewhat "wide open." History proves it.

"There's no way you can have a favorite," she said. "It's a huge challenge to get that thing as well as what we've done. Maybe we can be that special. Who knows."

What Elliott does know, however, is that she isn't a big fan of the tournament carrying more weight than the regular season.

"It doesn't benefit your top teams. It never has. I haven't changed my position on thought when we were fifth, either," said Elliott, who acknowledged the annual gathering is fun, fans like it and there's a festive atmosphere to it. "It is what it is. Don't fight it. Lets just go accept the challenge."

A look at this year's MWC tournament field:

No. 1 UTAH (27-3, 16-0)

Player to watch: Senior point guard Leilani Mitchell has brought the Utes back into national prominence. All-American candidate is conference leader in assists and among the scoring leaders.

Best win: Utah established itself as the team to beat in the MWC with a 60-59 win at No. 15 Wyoming on Jan. 30. The Utes enter this week's tournament with a team-record 22 consecutive victories.

Worst loss: With only three to choose from — a double overtime loss to No. 5 Stanford, an extra session setback to Marist and a 17-point shortcoming at USC — it isn't tough to pick one. The 62-45 decision at USC on Dec. 3 was the Utes' last loss.

MWC tourney history: The Utes are 2-2 in championship games — winning in 2000 and 2006 and finishing second in 2004 and 2005. They've made it to the semifinals or beyond in every tournament except 2002.

This year: The Utes are in position to draw an extremely high NCAA seed. If they run the table and win three times in Vegas, they'll take a 25-game winning streak and 30 victories to the Big Dance.

No. 2 TCU (20-10, 13-3)

Player to watch: Senior guard Adrianne Ross was MWC's Co-Player of the Year as a junior, also netted honorable mention All-America honors. Averaging 13.3 points this season.

Best win: Make it two. TCU picked up a pair of victories over nationally ranked opponents. The Horned Frogs defeated 20th-ranked Oklahoma State 97-63 on Dec. 18 and 21st-ranked Wyoming 73-59 on Feb. 13.

Worst loss: So much for neighborly love. TCU lost preseason tilts to instate foes SMU, Texas A&M, Rice and Houston.

MWC tourney history: The Horned Frogs haven't made a lot of noise in their first two MWC tournament appearances. They lost to BYU in the 2006 semifinals and fell to Utah in last year's quarterfinals.

This year: TCU's second-place finish in the regular season should catch the league's attention. The Frogs could hop their way into the finals.

No. 3 WYOMING (24-5, 12-4)

Player to watch: Senior forward Hanna Zavecz is a three-time, first-team All-MWC honoree and MVP of the 2007 WNIT. Averages 14 points per game.

Best win: The Cowgirls picked up a big road victory on Nov. 20 when they knocked off 25th-ranked Wisconsin 67-66 in overtime.

Worst loss: A 56-42 setback at BYU on Feb. 2 was a major surprise for the defending WNIT champions. They avenged it March 5 in Laramie with a 68-34 win.

MWC tourney history: The Cowgirls have never reached the finals. They reached the semifinals just twice — in 2003 and 2007.

This year: Wyoming is definitely a team to watch. The Cowgirls have been nationally ranked and opened the season with wins in 18 of their first 19 games.

No. 4 NEW MEXICO (17-12, 9-7)

Player to watch: Two-time MWC tournament MVP Dionne Marsh averages 15 points and six rebounds per game. The senior forward is New Mexico's career leader in free throws made.

Best win: New Mexico evened the score with BYU with a 55-45 victory in the Marriott Center. It came 31 days after a 41-38 loss at home to the Cougars.

Worst loss: How about six. That's how many times the Lobos lost in "The Pit" this season. Arizona, Stanford, Wyoming, TCU, BYU and Utah all left Albuquerque with victories.

MWC tourney history: The Lobos have won all four championship games they've played in — prevailing in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007. New Mexico has made it to the semifinals or beyond six times.

This year: The defending tournament champions are a mystery this season. The Lobos have proven they can play with regular-season champ Utah, losing a pair of heartbreakers. On the other hand, they are far from consistent.

No. 5 BYU (13-15, 7-9)

Player to watch: Senior guard Mallary Gillespie-Carling is the Cougars' only double-figure scorer with 13 points per game. She made the all-tourney team a year ago.

Best win: A 56-42 upset of nationally ranked Wyoming in the Marriott Center on Feb. 2 highlighted a roller-coaster campaign for the Cougars.

Worst loss: A March 1 trip to Air Force ended with something new — a first-ever loss to the Falcons, 54-49.

MWC tourney history: The Cougars have won the title just once (2002), but have reached the championship game five other times (2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2007). They've made it to the semifinals every year except 2004.

This year: Good news and bad news. The Cougars knocked off quarterfinal opponent New Mexico, 41-38, in The Pit on Jan. 26. However, they dropped a 55-45 decision to the Lobos in Provo on Feb. 26.

No. 6 SAN DIEGO STATE (16-12, 7-9)

Player to watch: Sophomore guard Jene Morris tops the Aztecs with 13 points per game. She also leads the team in steals.

Best win: After opening MWC plays with losses to TCU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the Aztecs stopped the slide with a decisive 62-39 victory over BYU.

Worst loss: A 75-68 setback to Indiana State in the Loyola Marymount Thanksgiving Tournament prevented SDSU from starting the season with a 9-0 record.

MWC tourney history: The Aztecs have never won a MWC tournament game — going 0-for-8. This is just the second time they've been seeded as high as sixth.

This year: SDSU's streak of futility will likely continue. Though the Aztecs are improving, a quarterfinal date with Wyoming may be too tall of an order. They lost both games with the Cowgirls this season by double-digits — 65-49 in Laramie and 55-44 in San Diego.

No. 7 AIR FORCE (10-18, 4-12)

Player to watch: Senior forward Alecia Steele has made consistent contributions throughout her career — averaging more than 11 points and seven rebounds per game.

Best win: After 20 consecutive losses to BYU, the Falcons picked up their first win over the Cougars — a 54-49 decision at home on March 1.

Worst loss: Make that losses. A disappointing 2-10 start in MWC play included a 58-48 setback at UNLV.

MWC tourney history: Not good. Last year's 47-46 win over Colorado State in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game is Air Force's lone victory.

This year: "Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force." Remember that jingle? Well, it doesn't apply here. The Falcons will likely be grounded after one game.

No. 8 UNLV (8-21, 4-12)

Player to watch: Senior guard Sequoia Holmes has shown her versatility — going from MWC Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07 to league scoring champion this season.

Best win: UNLV surprised nationally ranked George Washington with a 62-61 victory in the Lady Privateer Invitational in New Orleans on Nov. 30.

Worst loss: The Rebels didn't enjoy a Jan. 23 trip to scenic Laramie. They got blasted 87-39 by the Cowgirls.

MWC tourney history: UNLV reached the championship game in 2002 (losing to BYU 61-46) and advanced to the semifinals in 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2006.

This year: If the adage "There's no place like home" has any merit, the Rebels could be dangerous. However, a 5-11 mark in Glitter Gulch this season says otherwise.

No. 9 COLORADO STATE (2-27, 0-16)

Player to watch: Senior guard Sara Hunter is the Rams' leading scorer with 10 points per game. One of the league's most durable players.

Best win: Pick one, either one. The Rams' lone victories came in the preseason — 59-53 over Navy and 84-77 against Pacific.

Worst loss: Pick one, darn near any one. The most lopsided was a 68-28 loss at Utah on Feb. 2. The Rams, however, never avenged it on March 5 before falling to the Utes, 63-58 in Fort Collins.

MWC tourney history: Not so long ago, CSU used to be a contender. The Rams won the title in 2001 and reached the semifinals three other times (2000, 2002, 2003).

This year: The Rams are probably due for a win. However, they'll have to beat UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center to do it. There's a chance. CSU dropped a 57-55 decision in Vegas on Jan. 9.

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