And just like that, the Utah women's basketball season is over.

Despite 24 wins, a share of the Mountain West Conference championship, an RPI of 40 and time in the national rankings, the Utes have decided to call it a year. After being denied an NCAA berth, the players voted to decline an offer from the Women's National Invitation Tournament.

Utah coach Elaine Elliott confirmed the decision after an emotional team meeting that followed an unexpected snub by the NCAA selection committee.

Going to the WNIT, she added, was simply not one of her team's goals.

"I told them it isn't for me. I don't care about it. The program doesn't need it. I don't need it," Elliott said. "It's only about them, and they chose not to do that."

Kelsy Stireman, one of four seniors on the squad, acknowledged the Utes were reeling from a combination of shock and devastation after being left out of the NCAA field. Sophomore Shona Thorburn called it a slap in the face.

"We kind of discussed our motives for going," Stireman explained. "And we didn't want to go just to prove to people that we should have been in the tournament."

No need, explained two-time MWC Player of the Year Kim Smith.

"We really thought we had a good shot," Smith said. "It's definitely a disappointing end to a great season. We have nothing to be ashamed of."

Tears flowed freely as soon as the NCAA brackets were unveiled on ESPN. Shortly thereafter, the team retreated from the Burbidge Center's television to the privacy of a classroom.

"We thought we were going. It's like a big shock and a big disappointment," Smith said. "It was incredibly hard. We kept wishing our name popped up, and when it didn't, I can't even describe the feeling."

The news caught athletic director Chris Hill by surprise.

"All indicators were that we were going to get a bid," he said. "The program has got to a point where it's very disappointing for them not to have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament with as good of a season as they've had."

Elliott said the slight was very, very discouraging.

"I don't really know what more you can do," she said. "That's the hard part."

Utah (24-7) played a challenging preseason schedule that included visits to tournament participants Oklahoma, UC Santa Barbara and Montana. The Utes, however, were most likely victimized by the weakness of the Mountain West. A year ago, the league had four teams with RPIs in the top 50. This season, only Utah made the listing. Tournament champion New Mexico, which shared the regular-season title with the Utes, is 73rd overall. The Lobos are the lone MWC team in the NCAA tourney.

"I can't do anything about that," Elliott said of the conference's low ratings. "We're still a great league, and we still won it. So what's the difference here?

"I think we're competitive, so it's extremely disappointing," she continued. "It's like boom. The season's over on a day they didn't expect it to be. That's an emotional thing."

Utah, which reached the second round last season and the Sweet 16 in 2001, will miss postseason play for just the second time in the past decade.

"It'll hurt for a long time, but I think it'll make us better. The group that's coming back, we're going to be ticked off," Smith said. "We have a reason to work all summer because obviously they (the selection committee) didn't like what they saw. We have something to prove next year."


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com