WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. It wasn't supposed to end this way.
After rolling through Mountain West Conference play with a 16-0 record, a No. 12 national ranking and a team-record 22-game winning streak, the Utah women's basketball team fell upon hard times.
In a span of 11 days, the Utes lost both postseason games they played.
And just like that, their highly successful campaign the program's best regular season ever, is over.
Done. Finished. Kaput.
The final blow came Sunday a 66-59 loss to Purdue in the first-round of the NCAA tournament in a game played at Mackey Arena, the Boilermakers' home floor.
"It's hard. We came in with the expectation to win. Everyone plays to win, and that's really what we wanted to do," said senior point guard Leilani Mitchell. "It's not fun. All season we were just kind of waiting for the postseason and then to go 0-2 is frustrating.
"But we played with great effort and we played hard. We still had a great season."
Utah coach Elaine Elliott agreed. In her postgame remarks in the locker room, she thanked her team.
"I had a great, fun time with these players. I thanked them for taking me along on the ride, and that's what you have to remember. That's what you have to talk about," said Elliott. "They earned that memory. They earned that distinction. They've earned that reputation as a team of caliber."
Elliott added the her team's accomplishments shouldn't be diminished by the postseason losses.
"I'm not going to let people talk about the Colorado State game (in the MWC tournament) or this game as some sort of measurement of anything. It just isn't."
The Utes wound up going 27-5 overall.
"You can't take away from what we did this year. We broke some records and we did well in our conference," said Warburton. "It's hard to end it. Especially for the seniors leaving, and it's hard for me to see them go because I had a great year with them as well.
"You can't look at it as a failure," she added. "You look at it as we did well, we did all we could and that's just how it ended."
Despite the disappointing conclusion, Elliott said her team played like champions.
"They had a tremendous year, and they came in here and really competed," she noted. " ... I just said 'thank you.' You can't imagine the fun I had."
In the end, however, Elliott acknowledged the Utes just "came up short."
It was a seesaw affair until the final seven minutes. There were 15 lead changes and 11 ties. Purdue took the lead for good, though, following a steal by Natasha Bogdanova and a basket by FahKara Malone with 6:43 remaining.
Utah missed three layups on ensuing possession and never recovered.
"That was a big possession for us. Those are shots we usually make," said Mitchell. "We got the open looks we wanted. They just didn't go in for us. I wish I had an answer."
Malone then hit two free throws to increase Purdue's lead. It eventually swelled to 11 points down the stretch. The Utes were held scoreless for more than three minutes at one point and managed just a single free throw over a span of 5:06.
When the drought finally ended on a shot by Mitchell with 2:27 remaining Utah was down 60-55. Purdue responded with a 3- pointer by Bogdanova and a 6-0 burst to keep the game out of reach.
The Utes, who wound up outrebounding the bigger, taller Boilermakers by a 35-27 margin, simply didn't get enough production in other aspects of the game. Purdue had four players score in double-figures and netted 21 points off of 16 Utah turnovers. The Boilermakers shot 54.2 percent in the second half, while the Utes' accuracy was just 35.7 percent from the field including a paltry 1-of-9 from 3-point range.
"It's frustrating when we are executing our game plan and certain shots don't fall and calls don't go our way towards the end of the game," said Warburton. "It could have been anyone's game at that point. Unfortunately it fell for Purdue."
Utah led 29-28 at halftime after a late rally. The Utes held the Boilermakers to just one basket over the final 4:07 to erase a six-point deficit. Warburton sparked the comeback with seven consecutive points, and Mitchell capped things off with a 3-pointer.
The lead changed hands eight times in the first half. The biggest swing came during a four minute stretch when Purdue reeled off nine straight points to take a 23-17 advantage. Kalika France, who had a game-high 12 points before the break, made three baskets during the run as the Boilermakers capitalized on three missed shots and a trio of turnovers by the Utes. The latter, as well as eight offensive rebounds, helped Purdue remain in contention despite shooting just 33 percent from the field and being outrebounded 16-15.
Utah shot 52.2 percent from the floor but forced only four turnovers on the defensive end. Mitchell paced the Utes with 10 points, five assists and three rebounds in the first half.
"Their tempo in the first half really set the tone. It's not our type of tempo," said Purdue coach Sharon Versyp. "But in the second half we started playing our type of game, which obviously is to get up and down the floor a little bit and to get Danielle (Campbell) down low. Being able to change the tempo was what enabled us to win at the end."
France and Malone topped Purdue with 17 points apiece, while Campbell and Bogdanova added 14 and 12, respectively.Warburton led all scorers with 18 for Utah. Mitchell and Kalee Whipple each added 14.
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