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WNIT: Utah women embracing the opportunity to make a statement, send seniors out right

SALT LAKE CITY — It is not the tournament they hoped to play in, but the Utah women’s basketball team is trying to focus on the fact that they are one of the 128 programs lucky enough to still be competing.

“We’re excited,” said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts. “Everybody wants to make the NCAA tournament, which was our goal at the beginning of the year. We didn’t. At this point, we have to focus on where we’re playing, who we are playing, and we’ve got to try and do so with the same focus, the same intensity, the same desire as if we were in the NCAA tournament.”

Roberts told her players there were reasons to embrace an invitation to the WNIT, which will bring UNLV (19-11) to the Huntsman Center this Thursday at 7 p.m. First, it allows this team, led by its two seniors Emily Potter and Tanaeya BoClair, to continue competing together while helping “propel our program forward.”

Last year, the Utes were unimpressed by the invite and lost in the first round to UC Davis at the Huntsman Center. Roberts said she feels none of that reluctance this season. “They don’t want to be done right now. They want to continue playing. Doesn’t matter if we’re home or away, what our seeding is, these guys just want to keep competing.”

Potter said they feel differently because they simply want to keep playing together.

“There are only a couple of teams that get to end the year with wins,” she said. “One of them is the winner of the NCAA tournament, and the other is the WNIT. So, how cool would that be?”

She admits they weren’t excited to play in the WNIT last season.

“Last year we didn’t go in wanting to play in the WNIT,” Potter said. “It wasn’t something we rewarded ourselves with.”

BoClair said playing at home makes every game sentimental.

“Every game might be our last,” she said. “I’m just really excited.”

Both players said the team wants to make a statement about the progress of the Utah program, as well as erase any bad memories of the Pac-12 tournament, in which they lost in the first round to Colorado.

“After the Pac-12 tournament, we could definitely feel sorry for ourselves, but life is whatever you make of the opportunities,” Potter said. “There are 100-whatever teams that don’t get another opportunity to play.”

Junior point guard Erika Bean said the team loses two outstanding leaders in Potter, who is majoring in communication, and BoClair, who was just accepted to the U’s graduate program for athletic administration. Both lead by example, while BoClair is more vocal and Potter shows concern for all her teammates.

“I think she really cares about other people,” said Bean, who rooms with both of the seniors. “She’s really taken on this mental health aspect, just to see her wanting to work beyond herself. … (BoClair) leads by example also, but she’s more of that vocal, she’s that player-coach. Sometimes it’s not easy to hear from coaches, so when you receive that feedback or criticism from a player, it’s easier to receive it. I think she’s really good at that. She definitely has head coach qualities.”