Frontcourt tandem propels Utah to WNIT finals

The advantage was obvious going into the Utah vs. Kansas State game—the Utes start two players 6-foot-3 or taller; the Wildcats don't have anyone healthy who is taller than 5-foot-11. So the plan was simple: Get the ball inside to Taryn Wicijowski and Michelle Plouffe. It worked splendidly for the first 32 minutes of the game, and Utah held on to defeat Kansas State 54-46 in overtime to earn the Utes' first-ever trip to the WNIT finals.

"I really thought we defended and rebounded for all 45 minutes tonight," Utah head coach Anthony Levrets said. "Even when we went through that dry spell offensively, the kids showed a ton of fortitude and pulled together."

What at first appeared to be a relatively easy triumph turned into a nail-biter after Utah failed to score in the final seven and a half minutes of regulation play. Trailing by as many as 12 points in the second half, the Wildcats ended regulation on an 8-0 run to knot things up at 39 and force the extra frame. However, this didn't seem to bother the Utes mentally.

"We're pretty confident in overtime," forward Taryn Wicijowski said, referencing the fact that the Utes are 3-0 in overtime games over the last two years. "So all of us older players take a deep breath and say, 'overtime, this is when we're always good.' So we came out of the timeout really confident."

The Canadian post players came through in the clutch in the extra frame. Wicijowski ended Utah's scoring drought with an offensive rebound putback on Utah's second possession of free basketball and came down with two more caroms on the offensive end that led to five second-chance points. One such extra opportunity resulted in a huge corner three-pointer from Rachel Messer, who hadn't scored all night until her clutch triple stretched Utah's lead to 46-41. Prior to that, Plouffe utilized a brilliant turnaround jumper to give Utah the lead for good. Later on, she would be part of an 8-8 parade to the free throw line that iced the game for the Utes.

Wicijowski and Plouffe, the Utes' usual suspects all season long, combined for 42 points and 30 rebounds. Wicijowski displayed a bevy of impressive moves in the paint, having at least a four-inch edge over anyone who guarded her. Spinning off both shoulders and consistently finishing at the rim, the former hockey player had a double-double before the end of the first half and finished with 18 points and 17 boards. More of an all-around player, Plouffe did her damage from a variety of areas on the court. The Utes were able to jump out to a 7-0 lead thanks to her three-pointer and pull-up jumper on back-to-back possessions. The junior from Edmonton finished with a game-high 24 points to go along with 13 boards.

This was nothing new for Utah as Wicijowski and Plouffe have consistently provided the punch necessary to deliver the Utes to their 23 season victories. The team's top scorers and rebounders joined forces to the tune of 49 and 32 in a WNIT third-round victory in overtime at Pacific and are now averaging 37.4 points and 23.2 rebounds combined in five WNIT games.

"I think we're just a really great compliment to each other and we know each other's games really well," Wicijowski said. "We've played together for a really long time and when you've done it with someone [for that long], you just have a really good chemistry on the court."

The other half of the equation was a superb player-to-player defense employed by the Utes that frustrated the Wildcats into 28 percent shooting from the floor and an even more impressive 3-27 effort from beyond the arc. The star on this end of the floor was Iwalani Rodrigues, who was tasked with guarding Kansas State's most dangerous threat in Brittany Chambers. Birthday girl Chambers, the only player in Big 12 history to record 750 points, 250 rebounds and 100 assists in a single season, averaged 28.5 points per game for the WNIT coming into tonight's contest. After fighting through multiple screens and frequently denying Chambers the basketball in the first half, however, Rodrigues held Kansas State's superstar to 16 points on 5-21 shooting, thereby ending Chambers' school-record run of nine straight games of scoring at least 20 points.

"She has always been a pretty good offensive player, and we asked her to be a great defender," Levrets said of the redshirt senior from Hawaii. "She's committed to it, and I think now she has really taken pride in taking on their best player."

Utah will next play in the WNIT championship game at Drexel Saturday at noon (PT) on CBS Sports Network. The Dragons knocked off Florida 67-57 in their semifinal matchup Wednesday night.

 

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