Gophers not underestimating Utah

Coach Pam Borton said the Utes should have been in the Final Four two years ago.

As the nonconference portion of the season is drawing to a close for the Minnesota women’s basketball team, the Gophers could probably use a break.

But it’s not something they’ll get. Minnesota (8-2 overall, 0-0 Big Ten), coming off a stretch of eight games in 18 days, will face possibly its toughest challenge of the season, taking on Utah at noon Saturday in Williams Arena.

“A lot of teams don’t recognize their name, but they should have been playing in the Final Four two years ago,” coach Pam Borton said, “They’re a well-coached, sound, fundamental team; we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Utah (5-3 overall, 0-0 Mountain West) is known for its strong team play, as there are few weaknesses on the squad despite not having a premier player on the floor.

The Utes don’t seem to need a dominant force, however, as the team has three starters who average over 15.5 points per game, and another averaging 9.5.

Senior guard Leilani Mitchell averages 15.6 points per game, while dishing out more than seven assists per contest as well, distributing the ball evenly in a very strong offensive lineup.

“They can all shoot, dribble, pass, score – but I think we can match up with them,” Borton said. “You look out there and you aren’t going to see a team with one great player, but you’re going to see a team that can get the job done fundamentally.”

But weaknesses can be found on this team, and it begins with a very shallow bench. The Utes have managed just six points per game off the bench so far this season, resulting in three early-season losses.

And the depth should be one place the Gophers hold the advantage. With sophomore center Zoe Harper and sophomore guard Katie Ohm playing as well offensively as they have recently and junior guard Kay Sylva continuing to be a strong presence on the defensive end, Minnesota will have three more threats on the floor Saturday.

“I think everyone has the potential to have a big night on our team,” Ohm said. “That’s a strength of ours, everyone can score. They don’t have to just shut down one player, they have to stop everyone, and that’s a huge strength to this team.”

The Gophers have also shown signs of being a balanced team this season, as all seven scoring threats have reached double digits in a game this season.

Junior guard Emily Fox continues to lead the way with her hot hand, averaging 17.6 points per game, including a 30-point night last weekend at Virginia Tech.

Sophomore forward Ashley Ellis-Milan continues to improve from a slow start, and is averaging 10.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while sophomore forward Korinne Campbell is coming off the best offensive game of her career, scoring 18 points in a win against Charlotte.

Considering how strong the Gophers have started this season, this game has the potential to go down to the wire.

“This year we’re definitely a lot more mature on the court, and that’s making a huge difference for us so far,” freshman forward Tanisha Smith said. “We just have to keep our focus, and keep working hard, and I think we can be successful.”