Conference tournament time seems to bring out the best in the University of Utah women's basketball team. The Lady Utes have won three consecutive league titles, and Saturday night at the Huntsman Center, Utah took a giant step toward a fourth conference tourney title by beating higher-seeded BYU in a semifinal game, 78-69.
Utah (22-7) will now face regular season champion Creighton, a 89-66 winner over San Diego State in the other semifinal, in the WAC women's tournament championship game tonight at 7:30.Utah's inside tandem of Mikki Kane and Tanya Zachary proved to be too much for the Cougs in the rubber match between the two teams this year. Kane scored a game-high 31 points and pulled down nine boards, while Zachary netted 20 with eight rebounds.
The contest was close throughout, as neither team led by more than six points until the final minute of play.
Two of BYU's inside players, center Debbie Dimond and forward Lisa Rathbun, picked up three fouls early in the first half trying to stop Kane and Zachary and had to sit out for long stretches.
Cougar guard Thais Kidd picked up the slack, however, shooting 5-5 from the field and 6-6 from the foul line with a pair of 3-pointers to score 18 points in the first half alone. Kane was nearly as impressive, making 8-11 from the field for her 16 first-half points, as the Utes and Cougs were tied 39-39 at intermission.
"Our fouls hurt us a lot," BYU coach Jeannie Wilson said. "Anytime you have your two big guns on the bench it will hurt you mentally and emotionally, but our others kept us in it. Officials don't win or lose games for you."
In the second half, BYU went ahead 60-57 with 9:11 to play on a Amberli Gustin bank shot, but the Utes rattled off eight straight points, with guard Karen Alcorn scoring four, to put them up 65-60 with 6:10 remaining.
The Cougs went on a run of their own to knot the game at 65-65 on a Rathbun free throw with 5:21 remaining, but Utah then took control of the game going on a 14-4 run the rest of the way with Zachary and Kane leading the way.
"We just played tough on defense," Kane said. "I played so poorly last time that I had something to prove. Tonight I was better focused and ready to go."
For BYU, which finished second in the WAC regular season standings two games ahead of the Utes, an NCAA tournament at-large berth seems unlikely despite its glossy 21-8 overall mark.
Meanwhile, the Utes will face a shorthanded Creighton team tonight for the WAC's automatic NCAA berth.
Creighton 89, SDSU 66
The good news for the nation's 23rd ranked team is that it won its 14th consecutive game. The bad news is its all-WAC forward, Shannon Struby, went down with a knee injury in the second half and is "extremely unlikely" to play in the championship game tonight according to coach Bruce Rasmussen.
Creighton (26-3) was led by guard Becky Strathman's 24 points and all five starters netted double figures. Strathman was 5 for 6 from three-point range. Center Kris Kugel added 17, while Kathy Halligan scored 16. Struby netted 12 prior to her injury.
The Jays led by just three points early in the second half, but went on a 27-12 run during the next 10 minutes to take control.
"We played outstanding in the second half," Rasmussen said. "I couldn't be happier with the way we played down the stretch. We did exactly what we set out to do in the second half."