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Ute women see a win in their future

By winning two NCAA games over Fairfield and Iowa, the Utah women's basketball team has advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in history and will meet 30-2 Notre Dame Saturday night at Denver's Pepsi Center.

While the Utes are thrilled to be where they are, they aren't going to be content with just getting to the Sweet 16, even if they are playing the No. 2 team in the nation, which defeated their first two NCAA opponents by margins of 49 and 34 points.

The Utes are saying they won't just show up and be happy to be there. They really think they can win.

"We don't feel any pressure coming into this game," said Utah center Lauren Beckman. "They've been ranked No. 1 most of the year, but we're just going to come in and play our game and see what happens. We're definitely excited."

"This is really a good opportunity for us because nobody expects us to do anything big," said Amy Ewert, the Mountain West co-player of the year. "We think we can win and we believe in ourselves. We don't look at them and say, 'Oh, that's Notre Dame, we don't have a chance.' As long as we believe in ourselves we think we have a good chance."

Ute coach Elaine Elliott knows Notre Dame is probably the best team her program has ever faced, but she's taking the "we can win on any given night" approach.

"If we played them 10 times, they'd win the greater percentage, but they're not going to win them all," she said. "It's one game and out and we believe there's always that opportunity if we compete. Certainly strange things happen."

While the Ute women are confident, they're also realistic about their chances Saturday.

"We will need to play a complete game," said Elliott.

Beckman went a step further, saying, "Playing such a great team, we're going to have to be almost perfect in every aspect of the game."

GETTING DEFENSIVE: The Utes have always prided themselves on their defense, which ranked No. 1 in the nation the last two years in scoring defense. They were No. 1 in field goal percentage defense this year.

Notre Dame isn't far behind, however.

In fact, the Irish are tied with the Utes in field goal percentage defense, holding their opponents to 33.6 percent from the field. In scoring defense, the Utes are No. 1 at 49.7 points per game allowed, while Notre Dame is 4th in the nation at 54.9 points per game allowed.

The Utes will have their hands full trying to defend 6-5 Ruth Riley, a unanimous first-team all-American and winner of the Naismith Award as the top women's player in the country.

ALTITUDE ADVANTAGE: The Utes are looking for any advantage they can possibly find against the talented Irish.

One could be the altitude of the Mile High City. The Utes are used to playing at high altitude in Salt Lake City, while the Irish play near sea level back in the Midwest.

"It would be nice if it was a factor," said Elliott of the high Denver altitude. "But the way these TV games go these days with so many breaks, you can't rely on it."

NCAA NOTES: If nothing else, the Utah women are getting plenty of national attention in this year's NCAA tournament. Their first two games were televised on ESPN and ESPN2, respectively, and Saturday night's game will be televised on ESPN at 6 p.m. . . . Along with No. 1 seed Notre Dame and No. 5 seed Utah, the Midwest Regional will feature No. 2 Iowa State and No. 3 Vanderbilt, who will play at 8:30 p.m. . . . The winners of Saturday's games will play Monday night at 7 p.m. with the winner of that game advancing to the Final Four in St. Louis . . . The Ute women were scheduled to leave for Denver Thursday evening after practice. Their public practice Friday will be at 11:35 a.m. . . . Besides having the top center in the country in Riley, Notre Dame also has the top 3-point shooter in the nation in Alicia Ratay, who sank 53.8 percent of her 3-pointers this year . . . Utah ranks among the best free-throw shooting teams in the nation at 76.6 percent, 8th best in the nation.


E-mail: sor@desnews.com