Utes Blast Cougars to Take MWC Crown
LAS VEGAS -- They may have split in the regular season, but Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, Utah made BYU the main contestant in its version of "Who wants to get blown out by the real conference champion?"
The Utes held BYU scoreless over a six-minute span of the first half and put the game away early in the second half, adding the Mountain West Conference tournament title to the regular season title they earned a week ago. Utah coach Elaine Elliott said it was satisfying not only to complete the title sweep, but to do it against a BYU team that upset the Utes two weeks earlier at the Huntsman Center.
"I think the most satisfying thing is to do both. Riding out that conference season you come out on top as champions, then you come to a three-day tournament and all of a sudden it's like the only one who's really a winner is whoever wins the tournament," Elliott said. "That's a difficult position to be in when you're the one who just won a conference championship, so I'm happy because they got to experience the full celebration of what they've accomplished this year.
"If they hadn't won the tournament somebody else would have been celebrating and it would have seemed like they didn't accomplish anything, and that wouldn't have been quite right. I'm very happy for the kids."
BYU forward Lori Cuff had a great game early on, scoring 8 of the team's first 11 points and helping BYU to keep the game close. But with the game tied at 13, the Cougars went cold and the Utes took advantage. Utah held BYU without a point for the next six minutes and outscored the Cougars 10-0 during that stretch, going up 23-13 with under six minutes to play in the half. After BYU rallied to cut the lead to 4 points with 6 straight points, Utah closed the half with a 9-2 run to go up 32-21 after one half of play.
Cougar coach Trent Shippen credited Utah's defense for shutting his team down, but said it didn't help that his team couldn't buy a basket.
"We missed a lot of shots; we really couldn't shoot the ball very well," Shippen said. "A lot of that was due to their defense. We had some open looks that didn't fall. Our energy level wasn't the same tonight as we had in the first two games. Sometimes that happens in a tournament."
In the second half the Utes picked up where they left off and ran the Cougars out of the gym and the game. BYU guard Stacy Jensen hit a quick field goal to start the half, but it was all Utah from there. The Utes went on a huge 19-4 run over the next 11 minutes and when the dust settled, Utah was up 51-27 with just under nine minutes to play in the game.
Utah point guard, tournament MVP Tiana Fuertes, put an exclamation point on the run, driving the lane, drawing the defense then flipping a no-look pass over her shoulder to Katherine McColl for an uncontested layup to push the lead to 24 points. Fuertes' assist, her ninth of the night and 27th of the tournament, brought the fans to their feet and put the nail in the Cougars' title dreams.
BYU managed a late run, finally knocking down a couple of 3-pointers, but it was too late as the Cougars could do nothing but make the score semi-respectable. Utah center Lauren Beckman led all scorers with 15 points while Amy Ewert and all-tournament team selection Kristina Anderson added 10 points each for the Utes.
BYU freshman Erin Thorn also made the all-tournament team and scored 13 points to lead the Cougars, while Cuff finished with 12 points and was also selected to the all-tournament team. Despite her quick start, Cuff was held to 2 points and three shots in the second half and had no explanation for her struggles.
"I don't know. I got some quick ones to fall and I think we tried to slow things down," Cuff said. "They changed their defense, they were a lot more aggressive, dropping down to help out. But I don't know."
Meanwhile, Elliott was quick to praise her team for its effort, especially on the boards, where Utah outrebounded the Cougars 33-28 in the game, something Elliott said made all the difference in the win.
"Obviously I'm just extremely pleased. We played a very good game," Elliott said. "The players were very committed to defend and their intensity was great. I thought our effort on the boards was the biggest single thing that we felt like we had to do ... It really takes commitment on our part. We're not always the most physical team, but I thought tonight we made ourselves the toughest team."
Anderson -- who averaged 14 points per game and shot 65 percent from the field in the tournament -- said every player did her part to overcome the emotion of playing their in-state rival and make a difference in the big win.
"Anytime you play BYU there's going to be a lot of extra things, outside things going on with the big in-state rivalry, but this time there was a lot more on the line than just a regular-season game," Anderson said. "I think we all stepped up tonight, every single person that was out on the floor knew what their contributions meant to the team and knew that their contributions were going to help us win."
Utah should be a lock for the NCAA tournament after winning the conference regular season and tournament titles, while BYU will have to wait until Sunday afternoon to see if 22 wins will be enough to get the Cougars a ticket to the big dance. The selection show will be televised on ESPN at 3 p.m.