I thought we played a really good first half. We had 13 assists on 17 baskets, which is great. ...The second half was just kind of ugly – a lot of fouls, a lot of free throws, there was no real rhythm. ...Which is just boring. —Utah head coach Lynne Roberts
SALT LAKE CITY — Even as Utah’s lead dwindled from 20-points to single digits, Utah head coach Lynne Roberts wasn’t worried about the Utes’ season ending.
“UNLV is a good team,” Roberts said after Utah earned a 78-68 win over UNLV in the first round of the WNIT at the Huntsman Center Thursday night. “They won the Mountain West. It’s not like we were up 20 on an average team. I have confidence in the group. I was never worried we would lose. I was like, ‘Can we please make this a little prettier down the stretch?’”
Utah came out playing like a team inspired.
They dominated the first half — shooting 60 percent from the field in the first quarter and 57 percent in the second quarter. The momentum shifted — and then seemed to sputter for both teams, even as the Rebels chipped away at Utah’s lead by out-rebounding them on the offensive boards and shooting better from the field than the home team.
Still, Roberts said she was proud of Utah for doing what it took to win – even if it looked and felt a bit ugly.
“I thought we played a really good first half,” Roberts said. “We had 13 assists on 17 baskets, which is great. The second half was just kind of ugly – a lot of fouls, a lot of free throws, there was no real rhythm. Which is just boring.”
Megan Huff led the Utes throughout the game, but unfortunately, twisted her ankle with about seven seconds to play when she was fouled on a trap. She scored a team-high 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds, three assists and earned two blocks.
Senior guard Tilar Clark tied her season-high rebounds with eight, something she said she feels bolder about doing when Utah’s bench is deep and healthy.
“Sometimes I feel like rebounding gets me going in games,” she said. “I just know it’s something people expect from us. Or something I can contribute. I just like to rebound.”
Freshman Tori Williams scored 15 points and had five assists, while point guard Erika Bean added six assists, two steals and five rebounds.
Emily Potter finished with 10 points, while Tanaeya Boclair scored nine points and four rebounds.
Clark said the team talked after receiving the WNIT invitation and reminded each other why they wanted to give the game their best effort.
“We just felt confident,” she said of why they got off to such a strong start. “We wanted to play together longer. We know that any game that we lose is our last time being on the court together. And so, we’ve all come together and talked about it, and we’re all going to lay it out there every night to keep this season going.”
Utah’s defense held the Rebels to just 12 points in the second quarter and a 23.5 field goal percentage. The teams finished with 38 rebounds each, although the Rebels did earn more offensive boards 15-10. Utah had the advantage on assists 19-6, but they had three more turnovers.
Utah was 8-of-23 from 3-point range, while the Rebels were 4-of-19.
“I just think we found each other on the floor,” Clark said of why they started so strong. “We were playing Utah basketball.”
She admitted the pace of the second half was difficult.
“It felt really long, just drawn out,” she said of the second half. “Some moments we got a little lackadaisical because we were up, but we finished, and it was a good win.”
UNLV was led by Brooke Johnson, who finished with 17 points, as well as Katie Powell, who added 12 points and 10 rebounds. The win means Utah will head to Manhattan, Kansas to take on Kansas State on Sunday at 4 p.m. (Mountain Time).
“I think in mid-March, the story is we played a great first half,” she said. “We held on; we found a way to win.”