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Utah women's basketball: Freshmen lead Utes past Samford

SALT LAKE CITY — After a thrilling double-overtime victory against in-state rival BYU last weekend and a long and stressful week of finals, the last thing the Utah women's basketball wanted to hear was that All-American forward Michelle Plouffe (19.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg) would not be suiting up with the Utes for their game against Samford University on Saturday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

“Obviously, it was a very difficult week coming off a very emotional win at BYU, finals week and then throw into the mix our leader and All-American is going through a family crisis and tragedy,” Utes head coach Anthony Levrets said.

Without their senior leader to look for on the floor, freshmen Malia Nawahine and Emily Potter took complete control of the game. Nawahine and Potter each finished with a game-high 18 points and combined to shoot an impressive 15 for 21 from the field to lead the Utes to an impressive 69-49 victory.

“They are both really talented players. One of the things that happens when you lose somebody is someone else gets the opportunity to step up, and we think we have a talented young group,” Levrets said of his freshmen. “They had no choice but to play today the way that they did and I am really, really proud of them. For us to come out and to get a win like this makes me really, really proud of our players and coaches.”

The Runnin’ Utes (6-4) owned a seven-point lead at the break and kicked off the final 20 minutes of the game on an 11-2 run.

The red and white really seemed to pick up its urgency and defensive effort in the second half, as it forced Samford (3-8) to shoot just 37 percent from the field and completely dominated the glass by outrebounding the Bulldogs 36-18 to pick up the win.

“I was really pleased with our defensive effort tonight. I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Levrets said after the game. “Going through something like this is hard. When you have a teammate who’s going through an emotional time like this, it’s hard to describe, and I’m just really, really proud of how they played in all areas.”

Other than Nawahine and Potter, fellow freshman Nakia Arquette and Danielle Rodriguez and also had solid games as they added nine and 11 points, respectively.

With their star player sidelined and their backs up against the wall, this young Utes team banded together and had the toughness and determination to take care of business in the second half, outscoring the Bulldogs 33-20.

“I think it says a lot about our team. It was hard not having her (Plouffe) here tonight,” Nawahine said after the game. “But we all decided we would play for her, so we all stepped up and that was great.”

The Runnin’ Utes return to action when they take on UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Ryan Love is a full-time student at the University of Utah studying communications, and has been a part-time sports reporter and scoreboarder for the Deseret News since Oct. 2012.

Follow him on Twitter @RLove7724