Nov. 6, 2012
After battling through their first year in a new conference with a lack of depth due to injuries last season, the Utah women's basketball team looks forward to the 2012-13 year with confidence and optimism.
Utah returns four of five starters from last year's team, most notably junior honorable mention Associated Press All-American Michelle Plouffe and junior first-team all-conference selection Taryn Wicijowski. Also returning are senior Iwalani Rodrigues, who holds the Utah record for three-pointers in a season, and senior Rachel Messer, who has started 66 games during her Utah career.
The biggest question mark to start the year involves replacing three-year starting point guard Janita Badon, who finished her career third all-time at Utah in assists (578) and second all-time in steals (235).
Utah finished 16-16 overall last season, with an 8-10 mark in the Pac-12. The Utes went 1-1 in the WNIT, defeating Utah State before falling to Washington in the second round.
"Our first year competing in the Pac-12 was a great learning experience for our young team," Utah head coach Anthony Levrets, who is entering his third season, said. "The league is full of great players and coaches. Each team is unique but the common thread is that every team has incredible depth and talented players. As challenging as the league was, last year's team encountered more adversity due to illness and injury than any team I have ever coached. Through it all our team continued to get better and never stopped competing. Our journey into postseason was an amazing accomplishment and can be directly attributed to our player's resiliency and hard work. We believe last year has prepared us well for the challenges that year two in the Pac-12 will bring."
The season kicks off at Denver on Nov. 10. It is one of just two trips outside the state during the non-conference campaign, with the other at Hawaii on Dec. 1. Teams coming to the Huntsman Center include 2012 NCAA participants BYU (Dec. 8) and Michigan (Nov. 16). The Utes also have a rematch of their opening-round WNIT game against Utah State from last year, with the Aggies coming to Salt Lake City on Nov. 27.
The conference slate begins on Jan. 4 against California. The always-tough Pac-12 features two NCAA teams from last year in Stanford and Cal, with the Cardinal reaching the Final Four. Colorado, Oregon State, Washington and Arizona State all played in the WNIT.
Utah is slated to have five games on the new Pac-12 Network, beginning with California on Jan. 4. Other games include Arizona (Jan. 18), Oregon State (Feb. 10) and both contests against Colorado (Jan. 8 and Jan. 13).
Returning starters Rodrigues and Messer lead the way at the guard position. Rodrigues was fourth in the Pac-12 in three-point field goals made last year (1.8) and led the conference in minutes played (37.0). Messer started 31 games and was fourth in the Pac-12 in three-point field goal percentage last year (.357).
"Iwa and Rachel are going to be relied on for leadership, perimeter defense and stretching the defense with their shooting ability," Levrets said. "They have both worked hard on their games and we expect them to have great senior campaigns."
Sophomore Cheyenne Wilson was thrust into an important role last season after injuries affected Utah's depth. She averaged 16.7 minutes per game over 29 games with seven starts.
"Cheyenne played well at the end of the year after injuries forced her into the starting lineup," Levrets said. "She had a great offseason and will play a huge role for us."
Senior Rita Sitivi played in 12 games last year after being pulled out of a planned redshirt year midway through the season.
Expected to contribute as a freshman is Paige Crozon, who is the latest in a long line of Utah players who have also participated with the Canadian National Team. This past summer she played at the U18 World Championship for Women.
Three players are battling to earn a starting spot at point guard - sophomore Ciera Dunbar and freshmen Awa Kalmstrom and Danielle Rodriguez. Dunbar redshirted last year after suffering a knee injury in the preseason. She played in 28 games off the bench as a freshman. Kalmstrom has participated with the Swedish National Team. Rodriguez was a three-time league MVP at Warren High School in Downey, Calif.
"The point guard position is open for competition," Levrets said. "Replacing a three-year starter is always difficult but we really like the young kids we have at that position (Rodriguez and Kalmstrom). Ciera is back and healthy and is excited about the year. One of those three will be our starter, but all three are expected to contribute."
Anchoring the Utes under the basket are Plouffe and Wicijowski. Plouffe, who played in the 2012 Olympics with Canada, ranked ninth in the Pac-12 and led Utah in scoring with 14.1 points per game. She was seventh in the league with 8.2 rebounds per game. Wicijowski was fifth in the Pac-12 and led the Utes in rebounding last year, while ranking 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring.
"T and Plouffey are both gifted individually and play incredibly well together," Levrets said. "They both had a great offseason and have improved in all facets of their games. We are excited to see them both fully healthy and playing together for the next two years. Their skill sets complement each other and they are a fun duo to coach and watch."
Senior Chelsea Bridgewater, who originally came to Utah as a walk on before earning a scholarship, has provided key minutes on the floor over the past two seasons.
Freshman Nakia Arquette will also be looked at to contribute this year. She was a two-time all-GSL player at Lewis and Clark High School, leading the team to a state title in 2011. Junior college transfer Ariel Reynolds also joins the team. She was a second-team all-conference selection at Northwest Florida State College, helping the team to a 23-6 record.