Ending on a winning note: Cougars to take on Utah in final game of the season

Mastering the mental edge of execution in a high stakes basketball game will be the focal point of preparation for the WSU women’s basketball team this Saturday as it looks to carry a late-season momentum swing into the conference tournament next week with a final home victory over the Utah Utes.

Both teams have plenty to play for in Saturday’s regular season finale at Beasley Coliseum in a game that has postseason implications for each side.

The Cougs (14-14, 5-12) are attempting to maintain their push for an NIT bid and give the program’s four seniors a win in their final home game in Pullman.

Locked into the nine seed for the conference tournament in Seattle, beginning next Thursday, WSU likely would meet the Utes for a second consecutive time in the opening round with a victory on Saturday due to a head-to-head tiebreaker between Utah and USC in which the Trojans victory gives them the seven seed over the Utes.

“We’re a completely different team as well as them,” senior guard Alexas Williamson said of the Cougs 73-71 loss to Utah on Jan. 2. “I feel like it’s going to be two whole new different teams playing each other. So just attacking that team knowing that we can win and are going to win and just having that mindset that we’re supposed to be here and we’re supposed to be winning these games.”

Utah (15-12, 7-9) built a 13-point halftime lead against WSU in the teams’ first meeting in Salt Lake City in a ballgame that was a tale of two halves. After trailing 41-28 at the break, the Cougs outscored the Utes 27-16 in the third quarter to put themselves in a position to hoist a game-winning shot at the end of regulation after surrendering a one-point lead with 38 seconds remaining.

Based off of their low non-conference strength of schedule and record, the Utes have work to do if they are to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament but appear to be in good standing to secure a berth in the NIT. With an equal number of underclassmen on its roster to WSU (nine), Utah has two Canadian forwards who give it a considerable statistical advantage in points scored per game and rebounds.

Led by Emily Potter (15.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and Paige Crozon (12.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg), the Utes average 67.3 points scored per game and 42 rebounds per game compared to the Cougs respective marks of 63.4 and 36.7.

“Although we’ve been losing a lot of games, the fact that we’ve been right there in all of them tells us that we can win any of them,” senior guard Dawnyelle Awa said of dropping close contests to teams higher than WSU in the conference standings. “Our confidence is still high, we didn’t lose hope.”

Where WSU will have its advantage over Utah in Saturday’s rematch stems from both its roster depth and the emotional swing it yields in playing on senior Saturday at home. Eleven of the 14 Cougar players average at least 15 minutes played per game as opposed to the top-heavy Utes and forces 19.7 turnovers per game on defense, an area where Utah struggles with 16.8 turnovers committed per game.

“They’ve all four been phenomenal, been fantastic people,” WSU Head Coach June Daugherty said of her four seniors. “It’s been a good journey with them. I’ve seen a lot of growth in them as people, a lot of growth in them as basketball players and as leaders. They’ve got a great legacy because they’ve led this team, so far, to two postseasons and that’s something that hadn’t been done in a decade or so here. Hopefully a third here and we believe that. They’ve really done a lot of really good things for themselves in the basketball realm and outside, academically and in the community. A fantastic group.”

Looking to avenge a tight loss to the Utes and make sure its seniors go out on top, WSU will tip-off against Utah at 11 a.m. this Saturday in Beasley Coliseum. The game will be broadcasted live by the Pac-12 Network.