Morgan Warburton is the team's top returning scorer, and is a preseason all-MWC pick.
Nov. 12, 2007
Even with all of its past success, the 2007-08 University of Utah women's basketball team is still striving to take it to the next level.
The 2006-07 team went 19-14 (10-6 Mountain West) and made it to the Women's National Invitational Tournament second round. But, with a trip to the NCAA's Elite 8 (2006) and Sweet 16 (2001) in its recent past, the team hopes last year is a spring board back in to the NCAA Tournament.
"The overriding feeling from last season, even with 19 wins and post season play, seems to be one of disappointment," said veteran head coach Elaine Elliott. "The team believes they should have done better, so we will turn that in to a positive. It has led to great off season commitment to their training and a very exciting vigor to our preseason activities."
The benefits from the offseason are starting to show. With the 2007-08 season on the horizon, the Utes enter the year, not only with new faces, but in better shape.
"Our fitness level is vastly improved, as everyone committed to training together this summer," noted Elliott. "And, Leilani Mitchell gives us such a presence at the point when last year we ran that position with freshmen."
The team has only two seniors in Jessica Perry and Mitchell. But, it still returns seven letterwinners and three starters from last season. Four newcomers join the team, but rest assured, the Utes aren't lacking in experience this season.
"Our team now has more experience, overall," said Elliott. "We have the best wing combination in the league in Morgan Warburton and Kalee Whipple. We add success and experience at the point guard in Leilani and having Deanne Stevenson and Katie King bolsters our post game."
The 2007-08 season will pit the Utes against teams from the Big 12, Pac-10 and Big 10. Highlighting the non-conference portion is a home date with perennial power Stanford (Nov. 18), and road tilts against Nebraska (Nov. 24), USC (Dec. 3) and Minnesota (Dec. 8). The Utes renew their rivalry with in-state rival Utah State when the Aggies come to town on Dec. 15, and will also host Weber State (Dec. 21).
Conference play will be a challenge once again as five of the league's teams made it to the postseason last year. One of the top teams in the league will be defending WNIT Champion Wyoming. The Cowgirls come to the Huntsman on March 2, for the second of two meetings.
The Utes also have a pair of dates against rivals New Mexico and Brigham Young, with home games slated for Jan. 23 and Feb. 19, respectively.
The guards received a boost with Mitchell joining the lineup. The 5-5 transfer from Idaho had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but is available this year to compete in her senior season. With Mitchell, the Utes have a point guard who can run the floor and add scoring punch from the perimeter.
Mitchell earned honorable mention All-America honors at Idaho in 2005-06, where she led the Western Athletic Conference in assists (5.6) and steals (3.9) per game. She was also the league's second-best scorer, pouring in 17.6 points per game.
Hennasea Tokumura adds depth at point guard. The 5-4 sophomore gained a bevy of college experience last season, seeing action in 26 games as a freshman.
"Leilani is extremely talented," Elliott said. "She will make a huge impact on this team. Hennasea returns with more confidence and I anticipate that will transfer to improved play and opportunity."
Warburton and Whipple were a productive combination at wing last year. The duo accounted for 44 percent of the team's scoring in 2006-07 and were the team's No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, respectively.
"Morgan is versatile, has great size for an off guard, and will undoubtedly be a huge key to our success this season," said Elliott. "Kalee really has it all with size, strength and athleticism. She and Morgan make for an amazing wing combo."
Warburton, whose versatility saw her play some point guard last year, had a breakout sophomore campaign. She was an all-conference player in averaging a team-best 15.8 points per game, and shooting .882 from the foul line. Both marks ranked second in the league.
Whipple proved to be one of the top wings in the conference as a freshman last year. Her 10.8 points per game and a team-best 6.8 rebounds earned her third team all-conference accolades as well.
Sasha McKinnon sat out most of the 2006-07 campaign but will add depth and talent to the perimeter. She is a scoring threat from the outside and can also play solid defense. She will handle the tougher defensive assignments this season.
The post boasts both experience and depth this season. Headlining the returners are Perry and Stevenson.
"Jess has provided off-season leadership and is primed for the best season of her career," said Elliott. "Deanne has already impacted this team with her daily commitment to this program and her athleticism on the floor."
Last year, Perry saw action in 31 games and made 21 starts. Perry averaged 4.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. The last time Stevenson saw significant playing time was in 2004-05, when she averaged 6.7 points and 4.1 boards in her freshman year.
Halie Sawyer was one of the surprises of the 2006-07 year. She came in as a freshman and earned steady playing time. She played in all but three games, averaging 2.6 points and 2.6 boards.
A newcomer, King adds experience and depth to the position. She was a JUCO All-American at Salt Lake Community College, guiding the team to the national tournament the last two years.
"Katie will be an important part of our post game and is extremely sound fundamentally," said Elliott. "She will battle anyone."