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Utah Utes women's basketball: Utes play No. 7 Cal close but ultimately lose

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah women’s basketball coach Anthony Levrets is not fond of moral victories. But in his team’s Pac-12 opener against seventh-ranked California, a narrow loss came with a slight silver lining.

Defense was a key factor in staying within striking distance before the Utes (9-3, 0-1) ultimately fell to California (11-1, 1-0), 55-50, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Friday evening after rallying from a double-digit halftime deficit.

“I am really proud of my team and how we competed,” Levrets said. “We don’t want moral victories; we want the ones that count in the W and L columns. We’re going to have to get a little bit better offensively as we go. We make a few more shots tonight, I think we win this game.”

Utah shot just 36 percent from the floor and hit just 8-of-13 foul shots. Because of a handful of turnovers and fouls, the team also allowed a seven-point deficit with two minutes left in the first half to turn into a 12-point hole by halftime.

On the bright side, however, the Utes displayed moments of brilliance on the defensive end. They held the Bears scoreless for the first six minutes of the second half and again late in the game while closing the lead to just four points with a minute to go.

“It’s one of the things we really pride ourselves on around here — that we can defend,” Levrets said. “Game plan-wise, our kids do a really good job of taking away kids’ tendencies.”

The Utes held California well below its average of 78 points per game and to just 28.6 percent shooting in the second half.

“We did get things going defensively, and that’s where it starts for us,” forward Michelle Plouffe said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t executing as well as we could have and weren’t hitting shots. As the year goes on, as we become better defensively consistently, we will be able to carry that over to the offensive side.”

Plouffe finished the game with 16 points and seven rebounds. Guard Iwalani Rodrigues had 11 points and forward Taryn Wicijowski added 11 points and three blocks while holding California center Talia Caldwell scoreless on the inside.

“Caldwell is a big, strong, physical presence down there and (Taryn) competed her tail off against her tonight,” Levrets said. “Caldwell did a good job on her, too. They kind of neutralized each other.”

The Bears were led by Layshia Clarendon with 18 points, Afure Jemerigbe with 13 points and Brittany Boyd with 11 points.

Although frustrated with the loss, Levrets was pleased with how his team competed against the high-caliber competition.

“The good news for us is we are going to be so much better in February than we are right now,” he said. “I’m not happy with a loss, and neither are our kids, but it tells us we are probably in the right spot.”

The Pac-12 currently has four teams — Stanford, California, UCLA, and Colorado — ranked in the Top 25. Up next, the Utes will host fourth-ranked Stanford on Sunday in a 2 p.m. start. They will then travel to No. 20 Colorado on Tuesday and then return home to face Colorado again next Sunday.

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: