RALEIGH, N.C. — Many athletes, faced with the prospect of playing against the best in the land, might be apprehensive about gaining the national spotlight so early in the tournament.
Elaine Elliott's Utah women's basketball team thinks of it as a "get to" instead of a "have to."
"It's not like, 'Oh, no.' It's, 'Oh, yes,' " said Elliott. "They look at it in a positive way."
Led by a Ute freshman that DePaul coach Doug Bruno likened to Larry Bird in the way that she moves without the ball, Utah dropped the Blue Demons out of the season with a 73-64 opening-round win in the NCAA women's basketball tournament Sunday at North Carolina State's fabled Reynolds Coliseum.
It now gleefully prepares for Tuesday's 5 p.m. MST second-rounder against No. 1-ranked, No. 1-seeded Duke, 32-1 after snuffing Georgia State 66-48. Utah is 24-6.
The winner of Tuesday's game advances to the regional in Albuquerque.
"It's awesome. It's going to be a great experience. We've got a 6-foot-4 girl who can dunk, too," said sophomore Shona Thorburn, being facetious in a reference to Duke's 6-4 Iciss Tillis, who can also shoot threes. "We're going to have to play team defense, but we already knew that."
"We're excited. We have a young team and absolutely nothing to lose," said that Bird-like Utah freshman, Kim Smith.
Smith was simply unstoppable inside or outside as she scored 23 points with hardly a missed shot, leading Bruno to boast that his team had outscored her by four — in the first half.
The versatile 6-foot-1 forward added 12 in the second half for a career-high 35-point NCAA tourney debut.
Smith thus became the all-time freshman-season scoring leader at Utah with 520 points. She tied with three others for the second-most points scored in a first- or second-round game in the Midwest bracket, and she moved into a second- place tie with Julie Krommenhoek in Utah's all-time single-game scoring list, just one point off the all-time best by Susana Tauteoli in 1993.
Smith was 3-for-4 on 3-pointers and 11-for-16 shooting overall. She added six rebounds.
Thorburn added 20 points and a team-high 10 rebounds, one below her career high. She had six assists, all in a first half that saw her repeatedly feed her cutting Canadian-connection teammate for back-door layins.
"The first half, they were overplaying me," said Smith, "and everyone got me the ball near the hoop. I felt good about the shots I was taking. I just felt wide open on my shots."
DePaul got somewhat of a handle on that backdoor play by faceguarding Smith tightly in the second half, but the Mountain West Conference player/newcomer of the year contentedly helped out in press-breaking and then popped in free throws down the stretch. Of her press-breaking, Smith said she just took the release passes from her teammates and then got it right back to them.
"In the second half," said Bruno, "we did an awesome job on her and held her to 12. Where we got in a jam here was when we put big kids on her, she took them outside and knocked down threes, and when we put Jenni (Dant) on her, the kid goes to those back-doors."
"She's a really good mover without the ball. She just works real hard without the ball, and I give her teammates credit getting the ball to her, said Dant, who, at 5-10, scored 11 but fouled out trying to contain the 6-1 Smith.
Elliott said she could see during game-planning that DePaul would have problems matching up with Smith. Its big players were too slow outside, and its smaller players would have a hard time inside as Utah planned lob passes to her. "I really felt good about what they were going to have to do. Sometimes you don't match up so well," she said, empathizing with Bruno.
Another of the three Smiths in the game, DePaul's Khara Smith, led the Blue Demons with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and when she got aggressive in the second half, she nearly brought her club back. She injured a knee diving for a loose ball and had to briefly leave the game. The Demons cut it to a five-point lead, 59-54, with 4:30 to go, but a Thorburn rebound and free throws edged things back the Ute way, and they staved off the trouble.
Elliott noted Utah's troubles at times in press-breaking. "You've got to have good guard play. Obviously, we struggled with that," she said, "and used Kim to help with that."
Defensively, Utah determined it wouldn't allow DePaul to shoot threes, at the expense of trying to guard Khara Smith without help. "We weren't going to leave shooters," she said, noting that eventually suited Utah's best interests. DePaul couldn't use threes to catch up during its second-half rally. "We couldn't defend (Khara Smith) physically and just hoped she didn't get a lot of stuff over the top."
The tactic took away Demon guard Ashley Luke's 11.2-point scoring and 7.4 3-point shots per game.