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As easy as bye for Utah

LAS VEGAS — While the Utah men are thrilled to have a first-round bye for the Mountain West Conference tournament, the Utah women's basketball team has the closest thing to a first-round bye when it meets Air Force tonight at (9:30 p.m. MST, WB 30-TV) at the Thomas and Mack Center.

That may not be a kind thing to say, but look at the facts:

Air Force is 3-24 overall this year and winless in the conference at 0-14, while Utah is 25-2 and 14-0.

The Utes defeated the Falcons by scores of 59-29 in Colorado Springs and 80-33 in Salt Lake City. That's a average spread of 38.5 points.

In last year's first MWC round, the Utes outscored the Falcons 31-3 over the last 15 minutes on their way to a 65-29 victory.

Of course Ute coach Elaine Elliott and her players aren't going to say anything negative about Air Force and everybody knows the cliche "on any given night . . ." But this is one of those games where the only mystery should be how much the final margin will be.

"My biggest thought is that we have to play with the same intensity we've been playing with," said Elliott. "I really like the focus of this team."

While the Utes don't have any big stars, they have a well-balanced club that goes eight or nine deep, which will be important in a tournament that could include three games in four nights.

Center Lauren Beckman, a first-team all-MWC selection, leads the Utes in scoring at 12.3 ppg and rebounding at 7.6 rpg. Kristina Andersen, a third-team selection, is second in scoring and rebounding at 10.1 and 5.4 per game. Amy Ewert, who was named co-player of the year along with UNLV's Linda Frohlich, averages 9.5 points, but she is known mostly for her outstanding defensive ability.

The Falcons have no players averaging in double figures. Junior Rosalyn Ross leads in both scoring (9.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg), despite being a 5-foot-8 forward. Sophomore guard Morgan Bennett averages 9.1 points per game, while freshman guard Amoy Jackson averages 6.7.

Assuming the Utes get by Air Force tonight, they'll take on the winner of the BYU-UNLV game, which will be played immediately before the Utes' game. The semifinal game will be played at 3:30 MST Friday.

The Cougars (16-11, 8-6) gave the Utes two tough games, while UNLV (18-8, 8-6) was little trouble for the Utes in two earlier games. However, it's always tough to play the Rebels on their home floor, and they'll be the only team the locals can cheer for this year with the men being ineligible for the tournament.

The championship game is set for Saturday night at 10:30 MST, after the men's championship, live on ESPN-2.

All Ute women's games will be carried live on KALL Radio (AM-910) and WB 30-TV will televise the first two games.