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COVID-19 scare won’t keep Utah women’s basketball team out of Pac-12 Tournament, but not all the Utes will be available

After a disappointing regular season, Utah (5-15) enters Wednesday’s game against Washington State (11-10) in Las Vegas as the No. 10 seed. The Cougars are the No. 7 seed

Utah Utes guard Brynna Maxwell (11) goes for a 3-pointer against Arizona State Sun Devils forward Ja’Tavia Tapley (33) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.
Utah Utes guard Brynna Maxwell (11), shown here in a 2020 game against Arizona State, leads the Utes into the 2021 Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday against Washington State. The Utes had a COVID scare last week that caused Sunday’s Senior Day to be canceled, but have been cleared to compete this week, albeit without a full roster
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts said last week that, although the results on the court haven’t been great for her team this year, the good news was that her team and staff has been able to avoid cancellations and/or postponements due to the pandemic and has played as many, if not more, games than any team in the Pac-12.

“Our kids did everything they were supposed to do, and we avoided COVID, knock on wood, except for that shutdown at the beginning where we had one kid (with it),” she said. “So our kids have done an incredible job, and our staff, of staying healthy and safe.”

She spoke too soon.

A few days later, the Utes had to cancel Senior Day festivities and their rivalry showdown with Colorado on Sunday because of “COVID issues within the Utah program,” according to a school news release.

There was some concern Utah wouldn’t be able to play in this week’s Pac-12 Tournament, but Utes women’s basketball spokesperson Jordie Lindley said Monday the team will leave Tuesday for Las Vegas and compete as previously scheduled.

“After contact tracing and testing, even though we are without our full roster, we will be able to travel to Las Vegas on Tuesday for the tournament,” Lindley said. Utah is not divulging which players will not be available, or how many.

The Utes (5-15, 4-15 Pac-12) got the No. 10 seed and will meet No. 7 seed Washington State (11-10, 9-10 Pac-12) in a first-round game Wednesday (6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at the Michelob Ultra Arena inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The winner will meet No. 2 Arizona (15-4, 13-4) on Thursday at 6 p.m.

“It has been a roller coaster ride of adapting,” Roberts said last week, words that held true when the Utah-Colorado game was called off hours before tipoff.

Having lost 80-50 to CU way back on Dec. 14, Utah was hoping to avenge that lopsided defeat and snap its five-game losing streak, but it wasn’t to be.

“It has been a quite a year,” Roberts said. “It has been a challenging season, probably more off the court than on, although on the court the results have not been kind as well. So (we are) looking forward to finishing as competitively as we can. We have had some injuries, and just like everybody else, some adversity.”

Utah has been without Dru Gylten, its third-leading scorer (8.1 ppg.) since a 62-51 win over Cal on Feb. 5, its last win. Sophomore guard Brynna Maxwell leads Utah in scoring at 12.7 points per game, followed by Kemery Martin at 11.0. Martin prepped at Draper’s Corner Canyon High and has made the most improvement this season of any player on the team, Roberts said.

Utah Utes guard Kemery Martin (15) attempts a 3-pointer against the Arizona State Sun Devils Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.
Utah Utes guard Kemery Martin attempts a 3-pointer against the Arizona State Sun Devils Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Andrea Torres is the Utes’ leading rebounder, grabbing 5.3 caroms a game.

“I want to finish this season as strongly and as positively as we can, and I have been really trying to coach with that energy, like, ‘Hey, we get to play, and this year was a free year anyway,’” Roberts said. “We made some mistakes. It didn’t go as planned. I felt like we couldn’t ever really get the plane off the ground, for whatever reason.”

Utah lost 79-74 to WSU at the Huntsman Center on Jan. 1 and lost 68-55 to WSU on Feb. 21 in Pullman, the last game the Utes played before Sunday’s game was canceled.

“We are going to finish competitively and keep our culture and regroup,” Roberts said. “I still love my team. I still think this was the most talented team we have had at Utah. … Not having a preseason (aside from a 73-63 win over Montana State), it has just been hard. But again, life is not fair and I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for us.”

Washington State defeated Washington 61-52 on Sunday in Pullman, getting the most conference wins in program history. The Cougars had nine Pac-12 wins in 2013-14, the last time they had a winning season.

Johanna Teder scored a career-high 23 points on 5 of 9 shooting from 3-point range, after averaging 6.8 points a game during the season. Charlisse Leger-Walker leads the Cougars with a 19.4 average, followed by Krystal Leger-Walker at 10.0 and Ula Motuga at 9.0.

Obviously, the Utes would like to rekindle some of their magic from last year, when they upset Washington 72-63 in a first-round game and pushed Oregon in the first half before falling 79-59 in a second-round game.

“I would like to see us compete like crazy, start the game strong. We have just crappy first quarters, consistently. It is driving me nuts,” Roberts said. “And then we put ourselves in a hole and it is really hard to climb out. So, just start the game strong, win the first quarter, and win the games. That’s what I would like to see.”