Utah falls to Drexel in WNIT finals

Another stout defensive performance was not enough for the Utes as their postseason run came to a conclusion with a 46-43 loss to the Drexel Dragons in the WNIT finals Saturday afternoon. Leading for the majority of the game, Utah saw its advantage slip for good when Hollie Mershon hit a layup to put the Dragons on top 44-43 with 21 seconds remaining. Mershon then hit two free throws after Utah turned it over on an over-and-back to provide the final margin. The Utes had a chance to force overtime, but Michelle Plouffe's deep straightaway three-pointer hit off the front of the iron as time expired. "Credit to Drexel," head coach Anthony Levrets said after the game. "They played a really good basketball game, and they made one more play down the stretch." Anthony Levrets' team kept its opponent to 46 points for the second consecutive game and the Dragons to 36 percent shooting.  It again was up to Iwalani Rodrigues to try to shut down the opponents' top threat—Mershon. Even though the 19-per-game scorer recorded the game's final four points and finished with 14, she had to do so on 5-20 shooting. However, the one thing the Utes were unable to do defensively was create easy opportunities off of turnovers, as the Dragons only handed it over once throughout the 40-minute contest. Utah jumped out to an early lead thanks to perimeter play and its supporting cast. While Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski were being denied the ball by the Dragons' mix of zone and player defense in the opening stages, others were able to chip in with 17 of the team's 24 first-half points, helping the Utes out to a 10-2 start and three-point lead at the break. Rodrigues scored the first five points of the game for Utah and wound up leading the team with 12 points in her final collegiate game. "[Rodrigues] has really, really improved during her time here," Levrets said of the senior. "[She] made a kid go 5-20 from the field and worked her tail off to do it. We wouldn't be where we are right now, especially in this run, if it wasn't for Eva. She had a tough job every night and did it well." Although Drexel pulled away at the end, the Utes showed some grit down the stretch. The Dragons took their first lead of the game at 36-33 as a result of a Fiona Flanagan three-pointer midway through the second half. The lead would twice grow to five for head coach Denise Dillon's team, but Utah answered with threes from Plouffe and sophomore Cheyenne Wilson on both ensuing possessions. Rodrigues drilled a right-wing three-ball as the shot clock expired to give Utah its final lead of the game of 43-42 with 3:07 remaining before the Dragons took over in the final half-minute. Coaching on his 39th birthday, Levrets said the loss won't spoil his day or the way he feels about his Utes. "I'm disappointed that we lost, but I have no disappointment in the effort and the competitiveness and the grit that this group of kids showed, and that's all you can ask for as a coach is that kind of effort," he said. "So my birthday is certainly not spoiled. I sure would have liked to win for them, but it was a pleasure to get to coach these group of kids." The loss denies Utah of its first-ever WNIT title. Still, the Utes improved by seven wins over the 2011-12 campaign (23-14 this year, 16-16 last season) and will return their top-2 scorers and rebounders in Plouffe and Wicijowski. "While the NIT was fun, we're going to be trying to get to the NCAA tournament and in this Pac-12, it's a very difficult thing to do," Levrets said. "It's a great league with great teams top to bottom, and we have our work cut out for us. But I love the kids that we have coming back, I love the kids we have coming in...I think the future is bright." It is the first-ever WNIT title for the Dragons, who finish the season with an impressive 28-10 record. It is also the first time a Philadelphia-based NCAA Division 1 women's basketball team has won a postseason title. Drexel will lose three starters, including their top two scorers Mershon and Taylor Wootton, who led the Dragons this afternoon with 16 points. Wootton kept the Dragons from falling behind by double digits in the first half, scoring 12 of Drexel's first 19 points.