Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Lynne Roberts calls out a play as Utah and Washington play in Pac-12 tournament action at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a business where winners are never supposed to quit and quitters are never supposed to win, the Ute women’s basketball team did just that. It exited, stage left.

Give it the old college try? That ship has sailed. What were the Utes supposed to do, find people in the online classifieds?

The only way to salvage this season was to rapidly phase into the next.

The Utes announced Friday they were ending their season posthaste. Despite a finish that included nine losses in their final 11 games, they still ended with a 20-10 record. That wasn’t enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, but it was a near-guarantee for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. But rather than absorb one more defeat — almost a certainty, considering their decimated roster — they did the WNIT selection committee a favor by saying no mas. The decision arrived shortly after an opening-round loss in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Utah finished sixth in the standings and drew 11th-seeded Washington, but fell 64-54. It marked the low point of a season that at one point included an 18-1 record and a No. 14 national ranking. But injuries began to hound the Utes in earnest shortly after the calendar turned. They lost starting wing Daneesha Provo Jan. 4 in a game against Arizona State — the first defeat of the season — before winning six more. But fatigue and depth problems pounced. They lost six in a row, after which Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Dre’Una Edwards suffered a knee injury.

That took care of the team’s second- and third-leading scorers.

It’s not as though coach Lynne Roberts was caught unaware. In mid-January she talked about the loss of Provo and how the team had rallied. Depth had been sketchy to begin with, thanks to a variety of circumstances. One promising player couldn’t enroll in time, two redshirt transfers weren’t eligible, one forward got hurt in preseason and a redshirt transferred out.

Assorted smaller injuries combined to slow Utah’s progress, too.

That left virtually nothing but space between Roberts and the far end of the bench. By the the time the conference tourney arrived, just seven players were available.

“We are not in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament at this point, but looking at anything else postseason, I think we are tired,” Roberts said in a news release. “We are worn down, and you can just see it.”

In her as much as anyone.

“As a program, we have always strived to play in the postseason and we have a lot of respect for the WNIT, but this season has turned into a numbers game and although I am a competitor, and we want to play as much as we can, we also want to protect our student-athletes.”

Give her a bonus for just saying no.

The Utes can take it out of the money they would have spent on the NIT.

Turning down potential and actual invitations isn’t unprecedented. A year ago, Rutgers declined a WNIT bid after first accepting. Georgia’s men refused an NIT invitation after the coach was fired. Southern California said no to the WNIT in 2010, feeling the same as 2018 Rutgers — it deserved better. Weber State’s men’s team turned down an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational last year.

There are other situations where teams declined, some having been made public, others not. But seldom has it been about depth. For Roberts and the Utes, it wasn’t about bruised ego as much as self-preservation.

“When we came into the season, we wanted to do things that Utah basketball hadn’t done in the Pac-12, and we did,” she said.

Utah won its most conference games ever (nine) and placed one player on the all-conference first team; two others made all-freshman team.

Roberts said the decision put “closure on this season.”

Some say turning down any bid is a sign of ingratitude, or a false sense of importance. That isn’t Roberts’ nature. When Utah was 15-1, she said “with humility” her program was “heading in the right direction.”

In a roundabout way, it still is.

4 comments on this story

There was little to gain by extending the season and exposing remaining players to both injury and discouragement. Star forward Megan Huff is expected to be drafted by the WNBA. Schools that miss the NCAA field usually lose money. However, playing would have exposed the Utes to even more important losses to both body and spirit. Vince Lombardi quotes about quitting are fine. But as author Ken Poirot pointed out, “Never quit on your dream, but learn to cut your losses and quit if your plan is not working.”