RALEIGH, N.C. — DePaul University was a fixture in the NCAA women's basketball tournament in the 1990s, making the field seven times and advancing to the second round three times.
Then, it stopped.
The Blue Demons changed styles a bit, focusing on recruiting more-serious students. "I didn't think it would take six years to get back," said Doug Bruno, who has been DePaul's coach for 17 years, just three less than Elaine Elliott has been the coach at the University of Utah.
Ninth-seeded DePaul (22-9) makes its first appearance since 1997 in the NCAAs today at 10:18 a.m. MST against Elliott's eighth-seeded Utes (23-6) in the early game of the Raleigh sub-regional of the Midwest Regional at North Carolina State University's Reynolds Coliseum.
The Utes were the runaway Mountain West Conference regular-season champions who lost a semifinal tourney game to BYU. DePaul lost in the semifinal of the Conference-USA tourney to Cincinnati.
Neither has played since then, almost two weeks of layoff that Elliott figures motivated her players. "Competitors don't like to lose," she said.
Utah is making its 12th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, most of any of the teams in this sub-regional, which includes the nation's No. 1-ranked team, 31-1 Duke. But it's Utah's first dance since 2000-01, when it made its only Sweet 16 trip but lost to the eventual national champion, and only junior guard Kelsy Stireman played on that squad. Two others, Carley Marshall and Sarah Wobbe, were on that team but redshirting due to injuries.
Stireman said she would tell her teammates that "words can't express" what the NCAA experience is like — if she were the type to make speeches. She isn't. She told sophomore speechmaker Shona Thorburn to tell the team for her. Thorburn also planned to tell her teammates to relax. "We'll all be anxious to play anyway," she said.
That's about the extent of the Utes' tourney-experience edge over the Blue Demons.
Otherwise, they're fairly similar teams, though Utah leads the country in defense, holding teams to 50.1 points and 37 percent shooting per game and the Demons' good defense holds teams to 61.7 points and 41 percent shooting. DePaul scores 71.9 points a game to Utah's 65.8 average.
Asked to compare the Utes to some C-USA opponents, Demon players mentioned Cincinnati and Marquette, but Bruno had a correction to make. "The team they play the most like is us," he said at Saturday's press conference, noting motion offenses, sharing the ball, seven-person rotations and man defense.
Bruno winces at the word "drought" in describing his school's six-year absence from the tourney because the school went for an upgrade in the "student-athlete" and citizen department and now has a team that understands how to play. "I am almost ready to say (this is) the favorite team I have ever coached because they share and they care," he said.
Elliott has often expressed similar feelings about her Utes—who are very young with no seniors on the club and a sophomore (Thorburn) and a freshman (MWC player of the year Kim Smith) starting — but have been very consistent. "Kim has a real maturity about her," Elliott observed of her youngest player, who typifies her older teammates. "It's nice to know we're still looking at this group as a work in progress," Elliott said.
Like Stireman, Elliott planned no big pre-game talks for today. "Who we are today is who we are. We're not going to be something different because of a speech," she said.
The Utes haven't been the team that couldn't hold onto the ball and lost to BYU in the MWC tourney very often. "Conference tournaments are so difficult for your champion," Elliott said, calling that last game "just a loss, not a disappointment" that could factor into this game, other than motivating her players to want to win.
Utah has three scorers who average double figures in Smith (16.7), Thorburn (14.5) and junior Carley Marshall (10.1) and four who grab 5.7 or more rebounds a game (Smith 6.4, Marshall 6.1, junior Mandie Little (6.0) and Thorburn 5.7). It shoots almost 35 percent on 3-pointers, led by Smith's .426.
DePaul has four double-figure scorers in Khara Smith (16.4), Jenni Dant (14.3), Ashley Luke (11.6) and Charlene Smith (11.2). Khara Smith (7.6) is the only one who gets more than 4.6 rebounds a game. The Demons have taken 400 fewer 3-point shots than Utah and convert 39 percent of them.
Today's DePaul-Utah winner on Tuesday meets the winner of the Duke-Georgia State game later today for the right to advance to Albuquerque next week.
U. women in NCAAs
Utah (23-6) vs. DePaul (22-9)
Today, 10:18 a.m.
Radio: KALL 910