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Tourney proved Utes near elite

The best season in the history of Utah women's basketball ended Saturday night in Denver with a 15-point loss to Notre Dame.

While it was a disappointing loss for the Ute women, who finished with the best record in school history at 28-4, it was a game that may have put the Ute program on the national map as much as any in the program's history.

In a game televised prime time on ESPN, the Utes played the No. 2-ranked team in the country even until the final 10 minutes after many folks figured the final margin would be double what it was. As much as anything, the loss taught the Utes that they're not that far away from the elite teams in the country.

"There's not a huge gap there, believe me," said Utah coach Elaine Elliott. "We have a lot of good things to use as motivation and as an expectation level for next year."

The Utes have many of their top contributors from this year returning, including leading scorer Lauren Beckman (12.5 ppg), and starting guards Lindsay Herbert (8.2 ppg) and Kelsy Stireman (5.2 ppg) and reserve Erin Gibbons, who led the Utes with 14 points Saturday. Also back will be backup center Katherine McColl, guard Whitney Sutak and center Caroline Matthews.

"We've got a good nucleus of kids coming back," said Elliott. "We have a great junior class who did a lot for us and some young players who got some good experience through this."

The Utes will have a difficult time replacing Amy Ewert, the MWC co-player of the year, who Elliott referred to as the "heart of our team." Ewert never averaged double figures, but she was a defensive ace who could "cover anybody in the country," according to Elliott.

The Utes will also miss Kristina Andersen, a three-year starter who averaged 10.2 ppg this year and Lori Red-Castagnetto, a key reserve off the bench the past two years after being all-league two years ago.

"I'm going to miss our seniors," said Elliott. "I m proud of this team. They had a great season and a great finish."

The Utes have already signed one of Utah's best prep players, 5-10 guard Lana Sitterud, a three-time all-stater from Lone Peak High School who was named Ms. Basketball by the Deseret News in 1999-2000. They also have a couple of commitments, including one from Highland's Sharee Hendrix, the daughter of former Ute star Manny Hendrix, and may sign as many as four players this spring.

After winning their first 11 games, the Utes dropped a pair of games to Stanford and Loyola Marymount before reeling off 15 straight wins, including a perfect 14-0 mark in the Mountain West Conference. After losing in the MWC tournament to BYU, the Utes came back with two strong games at home in the NCAA tournament against Fairfield and Iowa to move on to their first Sweet 16 ever.

"I have so much respect for this group of kids," said Elliott. "I understand what it takes for them to have this kind of season and the way they play together. I love this team and everything they've given to me and I don't know if I've told them enough times."