RALEIGH, N.C. — Immediately after Utah tried hard but lost 65-54 to No. 1-ranked Duke Tuesday night in the second round of women's NCAA tournament play, U. coach Elaine Elliott was talking about recruiting players to fill in around the obvious talent she already has.
The nice thing about this season — which ended in N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum and on national television with a 24-7 record, some much-needed experience and some accolades for some young Utes — is that there is a next season.
No one graduates.
Kim Smith, who was Mountain West Conference player/newcomer of the year and would have made the all-tournament team here in Raleigh if one were chosen, is a freshman.
Shona Thorburn, another much-mentioned Utah player in this subregional, is a sophomore. A Canadian, some of her core classes didn't match up with NCAA ideals, so she lost a year of eligibility before she started. But once she actually graduates, she can probably get that fourth year back, somewhat like the "initial non-qualifiers" and "Prop. 48s" before that, though her grades were fine.
Carley Marshall, Kelsy Stireman and Mandie Little, Utah's other starters, are juniors. Sarah Wobbe and Lana Sitterud, who helped well off the bench Tuesday night against what is likely the best team in the land, are sophomores.
"I was thinking about that," said Thorburn of her time in the postgame locker room before coming to the interview room. "We had no clue what we would be like (this season). We returned one starter.
"You can't say we haven't had a great year."
The whole purpose of the 2002-2003 season for Elliott was to "build a foundation."
Along the way, the Utes built a reputation, too, winning the MWC regular-season title and getting to the NCAA's second round, then putting at least a little scare into the 33-1 Dukies, who went to the Final Four last year and are halfway to doing that again.
The Blue Devils were to leave North Carolina Wednesday for Albuquerque, where they'll meet Georgia in their sixth straight Sweet 16 at University of New Mexico on Saturday, giving superstar junior Alana Beard — a taller, heavier, longer and stronger version of former Utah Starzz guard Marie Ferdinand — another chance at the spotlight.
Quick, skilled and clever, Beard was marvelous Tuesday, scoring 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting while also guarding Utah's Smith most of the game. Smith also guarded Beard about half the time, and she spelled Marshall trying to cope with 6-foot-4 junior Iciss Tillis, whose athleticism also hurt the Utes.
Tillis had 12 points, 10 rebounds and four steals while frustrating Utah's Marshall at both ends of the court and occasionally stepping out to guard a guard, too.
Still, Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, the third-winningest coach by percentage in the nation, started her postgame interview by saying, "My hat's off to Utah. They don't get enough credit for their offense. We played some of our best defense yet in the first half, and they were shooting 47 percent."
Utah's defense ranked No. 1 in the nation statistically during the regular season as it held opponents to 50.1 points a game on average. Duke was the nation's top offense, scoring 81.6 a game in the regular season. Tuesday, the Blue Devils shot 45.5 percent, within a percent of their field-goal average, but were 16.5 points below their scoring average.
Duke is the nation's No. 6 defensive team, too, and that showed in the way its players were able to play up-close-and-personal individual defense that resulted in several steals that went for fast-break layins. "We pride ourselves on our defense," said Beard, noting it took a strong effort to contain the Utes. "We know how good a motion team Utah is. If you turn your head for one second, they cut back-door."
"Our entire goal was to make (Utah) feel uncomfortable. We wanted them to put the ball on the floor," Goestenkors said. For the second half, she parlayed bigger size, quickness and great depth to her team's advantage with the idea of simply wearing the Utes down. It worked.
Smith, who scored 20 points and had five rebounds but four turnovers, acknowledged feeling tired, and Elliott blamed that on not having the kind of depth Duke has — the kind she hopes to find for next year. "I'm sorry about that as a coach," Elliott said.
"I wouldn't say 'rushed,' " Thorburn analyzed about Utah's shooting, which had dropped to 41.7 percent for the game. "We took our shots, which we normally take. I was 4-for-13. That's not a great night. I didn't play as well as I have in the past."
Thorburn lauded the play of fellow guard Stireman, who made four-of-six shots for eight points, had five assists, as did Thorburn, and grabbed five rebounds and two steals. She also blocked a shot. "I thought 'Sti' did an awesome job," Thorburn said.
Off the bench, Wobbe gave Utah a 20-19 lead with a back-door cut for a Thorburn-assisted layup, and Lana Sitterud hit a couple first-half threes and made two steals.
What had been an 11-point Duke lead with five minutes left in the first half was shaved to four on a Marshall steal and Thorburn layin at 13:54 of the second half, but fatigue showed for Utah as the Blue Devils went on a 23-4 run from 12-10 to 5:34.
Smith finished the two-game sub-regional with 55 points and 11 rebounds, but the only thing in her mind was the loss and the promise of next year. "I will work on things to I don't turn the ball over," she said.
That attitude bodes well for 2003-04. "Losing stinks. There's nothing good about it," said Elliott. "You want losing to be painful. Pain says something good about your team."