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Utah women's basketball: Utes pleased to escape with narrow win over gutsy Utah Valley

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah women’s basketball team walked away with a win on Wednesday evening, but it was far from a masterpiece.

“It’s fortunate that there’s no pictures in the win-loss column,” head coach Anthony Levrets said afterward, “because that was about as ugly a basketball game as I’ve been a part of.”

The Utes edged Utah Valley University 81-70 at the Huntsman Center to improve to 4-4 on the season. Utah was led by senior forward Michelle Plouffe, who finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds, but the glaring sticking point for the Utes was, once again, their performance on defense.

UVU guard Katie Kuklok scored a career-high 34 points on 7-for-12 shooting and hit four 3-pointers. She was 16 of 17 from the foul line, grabbed five rebounds, had five assists and turned the ball over just once.

“Give Utah Valley a ton of credit,” Levrets said. “Their kid came in here and just took it to us. It’s the third time this year that a kid has gone for a career high in points against us.”

The Utes gave up 33 points in the first half and 37 more in the second. They allowed 18 points in the paint and saw UVU hit 7 of 14 shots from beyond the 3-point line.

“We managed to win, which is good,” the coach said, “but we have to get better defensively. We’ve got to adapt to the rule changes, and we have not done that yet.”

Traditionally an aggressive man-to-man defensive team, Utah has seemingly not yet adjusted to the NCAA emphasis on tighter foul calls for hand checks on the perimeter. On Wednesday, the Utes had 21 personal fouls, seven more than the Wolverines (1-9), which led to 23 points from the free-throw line for UVU.

“We’ve got to learn. Part of it is being young, but part of it is being silly,” Levrets said of the number of fouls. “At some point you have to adapt to the way the game is being called. We’ve been a very physical man-to-man team over the years — people have accused us of being quite physical — but we’re not allowed to do that right now and we have to adjust.”

The positive takeaway for Utah, Plouffe noted afterward, was escaping with a win in spite of the struggles.

“We won,” she said. “A win is a win, and I prefer learning from a win rather than a loss.”

The senior, who has been named to the Naismith Trophy's early-season watch list, added that the Utes do have great potential.

“We played hard, which is a good thing, and we just have to put everything together,” she said. “When we play hard and we talk and we play defense, we’re good. If we can put everything we are capable of doing together for 40 minutes, then we’re going to be good. But we have yet to do that.”

Sam Loggins and Rhaiah Spooner-Knight scored 11 and 10 points, respectively, for UVU, while Utah received double-digit contributions from three additional players. Freshman Emily Potter had 16 points and nine rebounds, while Malia Nawahine and Danielle Rodriguez added 11 points apiece.

Up next, the Utes travel to Provo to play BYU at 2 p.m. on Saturday. They return to the Huntsman Center the following week, Dec. 21, to host Samford.

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.