We're improving. Getting back to our defense was a good starting point. We can only get better from here. —Michelle Plouffe

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah women's basketball team pulled off a narrow victory Thursday in the Huntsman Center, beating Arizona State 50-46.

According to both leading scorer Michelle Plouffe and Utah head coach Anthony Levrets, it was "good to be back."

They suffered tough losses on the road last week to Oregon and Oregon State and have struggled to maintain their defensive prowess.

Levrets expressed excitement over the win and was "incredibly proud" of his team's efforts. "It was a very, very good team win. We've focused a lot the last couple of weeks on getting back to how we play defensively. We have to play as a team and we did an unbelievable job with team defense tonight."

Utah held the Sun Devils to a mere 16.7-percent shooting in the first half and 30-percent overall.

Plouffe attributes the success to each player helping out while maintaining the man-to-man defense. "We just came together as a team defensively. In the past we've been caught up playing 1-on-1," she said. "Our base is to help everyone and we did a good job on that tonight."

The Sun Devils (6-6, 16-8) played an incredibly tight defense, marking up and being extremely physical for the entire forty-minutes. Coach Levrets worked to prepare his team, knowing all too well from Utah's last meeting with ASU where they fell 59-51.

Levrets told his staff before the game, "Against this sort of pressure, if we can get between 18 and 20 turnovers for the game, then we're going to have a chance to win." He noted how unusual a statement saying, "Usually if you talked about turning it over 18 times, you'd lose your mind."

Utah finished with 19 turnovers. And as suspected, they were able to earn the victory regardless.

"I knew if we had more than 20, that's too many easy (ASU) baskets," he said. "Although not what you'd want on a normal night (19 turnovers), against that pressure, I couldn't be happier with how we handled it."

The beginning of the first half was rough for the Utes offensively, as their first field goal came nearly nine minutes into the game. Fortunately, Arizona State shot just 17-percent in the half and Utah was able to go on a 15-2 run for a 10-point lead with three minutes remaining. The Utes had the halftime advantage, 20-15, led by Plouffe's seven points.

Arizona State found the basket much more frequently in the second and the half featured four ties and six lead changes.

With three minutes remaining, Utah led 45-41. A Utah turnover led to a three-pointer by Alex Earl to cut the deficit to just one point. However, Plouffe would step up for the Utes, draining a three from long range on the very next possession to regain the four-point lead.

Kali Bennett of ASU hit a jumper with over a minute remaining (48-46) before both teams missed a shot on their possessions. With 14 seconds left in the game, Janita Badon snagged a crucial rebound on an Arizona State miss, and was fouled on the way down. Badon sealed the deal, hitting both free throws from the charity stripe.

Plouffe led Utah with four blocks and 14 points, while Taryn Wicijowski muscled her way to 10 rebounds, three blocks and six points. Rachel Messer was clutch for the Utes with two big 3-pointers and 11 total points.

Utah fought the entire forty minutes, showing vast improvement in maintaining their composure down the line.

"We're improving," Plouffe said. "Getting back to our defense was a good starting point. We can only get better from here."

The Utes will celebrate tonight before preparing for Arizona on Saturday, Feb. 11 in the Huntsman Center.

Email: jwilde@desnews.com