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U. women: refocused, regrouped, rarin' to go

Unlike the Utah men, who sleepwalked through a first-round NIT loss to Memphis Tuesday night, the Utah women basketball players are genuinely excited about playing in this weekend's NCAA tournament at the Huntsman Center.

The Ute women (26-3) will meet Fairfield (25-5) Saturday night at 9:30 at the Huntsman Center after Iowa and Oregon meet at 7 p.m. The winners meet Monday at 9:30 p.m.

Like the men, the Ute women were upset in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament last week. However, they look as if they're more inclined to shake off their loss and be ready for the first and second rounds, which could vault them into the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time.

"We're very fortunate to be coming back to Salt Lake," said Ute center Lauren Beckman, who led the Utes with a 12.6 average this year. "We've taken time to refocus and regroup and we'll be ready to go. After those two losses in December we came back with a 16-game winning streak."

"We haven't lost too many games and after we lost those two, we came back stronger than ever," added Amy Ewert, who was named co-MWC player of the year. "We can't stand losing and hopefully this loss (to BYU) will be a catalyst to get us back on track."

Utah coach Elaine Elliott has really downplayed the Utes second-round loss in Las Vegas and is even putting a positive spin on it.

"To stay on top of our game all last week and again this week — to be honest, I think that would be a very tough thing to do," she said. "My hope is that this was an opportunity for us to back off a little bit and rest a little bit. Hopefully we'll be rejuvenated and even more motivated."

NOT AGAIN: When the pairings first flashed on the TV screen Sunday afternoon, the Utes briefly thought they were headed to Iowa when Utah was listed as a No. 5 seed and Iowa as a No. 4. It would have marked the third straight postseason the Utes were sent to the Hawkeye State.

"I thought, 'We're going to Iowa again — we've been there the past two postseasons,' " said Beckman. "But it's exciting to be coming back to Salt Lake."

Last year the Utes played in the NCAA regional in Ames, Iowa, and the year before they played in Des Moines, Iowa, in the WNIT, where they lost to Drake. Also the Utes played a preseason game in Iowa City against the University of Iowa this year, a game they won 66-42.

FAIRFIELD INFO: For those who don't know where Fairfield is, well, it's somewhere in Connecticut. Utah has played Fairfield just once, winning 78-48 in 1988.

The Stags are much better now, but they still have the same coach in Dianne Nolan, who has compiled a 383-256 record in 22 seasons at Fairfield. Nolan's program has 15 winning seasons in the past 19 years, three Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships, three MAAC regular season titles, three appearances in the NCAA National Tournament, a WNIT appearance and five 20-plus win seasons.

UTE NOTES: If the Utes should get through the first and second rounds at home, they'll advance to the Midwest Regional, which will be played at the Pepsi Center in Denver March 24 and 26 . . . This will mark Utah's seventh straight postseason appearance with six in the NCAA tournament and one in the WNIT in 1999. The Utes' only win came in 1997 when they beat Iowa State 66-57 before losing to Virginia . . . As a team, Utah leads the nation in scoring defense, holding its opponents to an average of 49.7 points per game. The Utes are second nationally in field goal percentage defense (33.6), sixth in win-loss record (26-3) and 13th in scoring margin (16.8) . . . The Ute men could take some free-throw shooting lessons from the women, who average 76.6 percent from the line, led by Kristina Andersen's 87.9 percent average . . . Over the past five years, Utah has the fourth-best winning combined percentage in men's and women's basketball (.795), trailing only Connecticut, Duke and Stanford.