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Small transfer has big impact on Utah hoops

Despite Leilani Mitchell's 5-foot-5 frame the Utah guard has been a leader in scoring and assists. Mitchell transferred from Idaho.
Despite Leilani Mitchell's 5-foot-5 frame the Utah guard has been a leader in scoring and assists. Mitchell transferred from Idaho.
Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News

A good first impression is paying big dividends for the University of Utah women's basketball team.

After crossing paths at Hawaii's Rainbow Wahine Classic in 2004, Idaho guard Leilani Mitchell and the Utes developed a mutual respect for one another. Mitchell, who earned honorable mention All-America honors the next season, led all scorers with 19 points in a 57-50 loss to Utah that day.

"They were just a real disciplined team and well prepared for the game," Mitchell said. "They just kind of caught my attention. Then once I decided to leave Idaho, I thought I should take a look here and see if they were interested in me."

Utah's response was swift and decisive.

"We were interested from the day we learned she was leaving," said head coach Elaine Elliott, whose squad is off to an 11-3 start with Mitchell running the point.

The 5-foot-5 guard is making a big impact with the Utes. Mitchell has already been named the Mountain West Conference's player of the week four times.

"She really is that good," Elliott said. "The kids not only appreciate having a point guard like that, they also just appreciate her individually. She's extremely well liked. Everything about it has been good.

"There's been nothing about it that hasn't been anything but beneficial to all of us," Elliott added.

Mitchell, who leads the MWC with 7.14 assists per game, has fit right in with her new teammates.

"She just makes everybody better. She's made me a better player reading her off passes and stuff. She just comes to every game. You know she's going to be ready. It's good to have a leader that way," junior Morgan Warburton said. "She's going to be ready to play and she expects you to be ready to play. She doesn't do it vocally that much, but you can tell in her play. She's ready to go and you should follow her. Everybody does, and it's good to look up to somebody like that."

Mitchell leads the Utes in scoring with 17.1 points per game — topping the five other point guards in the nation with 100 or more assists this season. She's one of three double-digit scorers for Utah — Warburton (16.9 ppg) and Kalee Whipple (14.1 ppg) are the others.

"It's fun to play with people who can score — just give them the ball and they take care of it from there," Mitchell said.

The transition has been smooth.

"I know she's going to find me, she's going to see me. It's amazing to know somebody can get you the ball that fast," Warburton said. "Now that we've been playing more together we just read each other and it's created a good chemistry on our team."

An important variable considering Mitchell's career at Utah will consist of just one campaign.

"You can either look at it as wishing you had it more or recognize that you're fortunate that you've had it for a season," Elliott said. "That's how good she is and how great it is to have her in the program."

Mitchell, she noted in the team's media guide, is WNBA good.

"I love basketball," said Mitchell, who is usually one of the first players to arrive at practice and is one of the last to leave. " ... I love it here. It's a great place to play with great coaches and a fun team."

The decision to transfer, however, wasn't easy.

"It was difficult," she said. "It took me a couple of months to really decide."

Mitchell didn't leave Idaho empty handed. She said she learned a lot about the game, people and relationships during her tenure with the Vandals.

"And then coming here, I've met some wonderful people and played for some good coaches," she explained. "I love my teammates, so it's been great."

Mitchell acknowledged it was difficult to spend last year on the sidelines because of NCAA transfer rules. She used the time, however, to become more familiar with Utah's system. It's given her a boost going into this season.

"It's a lot of fun. I wish I had more than one year, but that's how it goes. So I'm just trying to make the most of it," Mitchell said.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com