Nov. 9, 2011
The Utah women's basketball team begins a new era in 2011-12 as they enter the Pac-12. The Utes will be looking to build on last year's success which saw a young team play its best basketball at the end of the season, winning four games in five days to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament as a No. 5 seed and reach the NCAA Tournament.
Utah returns four of five starters from last year's team, including leading scorer Iwalani Rodrigues, MWC Freshman of the Year Michelle Plouffe, and MWC Tournament MVP Janita Badon. The Utes also receive a boost from 2010 MWC Freshman of the Year Taryn Wicijowski, who redshirted last season after tearing her ACL three games into the year.
"We were incredibly young last year, which was bad news last year," second-year head coach Anthony Levrets said. "However, the experience our young players gained from having to play critical roles last season provided us a ton of experience. The way we finished the year gives us all a tremendous amount of hope as we tackle a new year. The addition of a healthy and motivated Taryn Wicijowski is a huge boost to a very hungry and talented young team."
Other returning players who will be looked upon to play key roles include juniors Diana Rolniak, Rachel Messer and Chelsea Bridgewater. Rolniak is a returning starter who led the team in blocks last year, while Messer and Bridgewater provided key minutes off the bench.
The Pac-12 schedule is highlighted by NCAA Final Four participant Stanford. The Utes played the Cardinal in a tough matchup last year in the Huntsman Center before falling, 62-53. UCLA and Arizona State also participated in the NCAA Tournament, while USC finished second in the WNIT. Colorado also made a strong run in the WNIT, reaching the quarterfinals.
"We really try to take it one game at a time," Levrets said. "After each game we evaluate our players and our team and then try to improve while preparing for our next opponent. We believe this is the best way to maximize our growth as a team and ultimately be playing our best basketball at the end of the season, regardless of who the opponent is."
The team's lone senior and unquestionable team leader at point guard, Badon was 18th in the nation last season in assists per game (5.6). She led the league in steals, averaging 2.4 per game. Badon is nearing 1,000 career points, entering the season with 870. She ranks fourth at Utah in the career charts in assists (435) while ranking sixth in steals (191).
"Janita has become a tremendous leader," Levrets said. "She has continued to work on her game and might be our most improved player. Our team will feed off her energy and passion throughout the year."
Rodrigues was one of the most prolific three-point shooters in the nation last year, ranking fifth in the NCAA in three-point field goals per game (3.1) and eighth in three-point field goal percentage (44.9). She ranked sixth in the MWC in scoring with a team-high 14.9 points per game.
"Iwa made huge strides as a sophomore," Levrets said. "She is a great shooter and became a capable defender. Her focus for this season is expanding her offensive game and becoming a great defender."
Messer is a solid three-point shooter who was the first player off the bench last year, averaging 25.3 minutes per game with eight starts. She was second on the team with 35 three-pointers for a .310 shooting percentage from behind the arc.
"Rachel is one of our most unselfish and versatile players," Levrets said. "She will play positions one through three this year and will be counted on to make open three's while playing all over the floor."
Sophomore Allison Gida will be looking to build on her experience as a freshman to earn more playing time. Gida played in nine games last year.
"Allison is a versatile and gifted offensive player, Levrets said. "She can play on the perimeter and in the post. As she grows defensively she will become a contributing member of this team."
Junior Rita Sitivi, who played in four games last year, is recovering from offseason knee surgery and will look to add depth in the backcourt.
One of just two newcomers, freshman Cheyenne Wilson was a two-time all-state player at Cleveland High School in Seattle.
"Chey is a talented offensive player," Levrets said. "She can make an open three and get to the rim. She has an incredible pull-up jumper. As she learns defensively, she will compete for minutes."
Check back tomorrow for part two, featuring the forwards.