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Young Utes play on usual court, bigger stage

Laura Myers | Friday, March 18, 2011

SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah freshman Michelle Plouffe and junior Janita Badon finished answering questions from the media and left to prepare for practice Friday, first-year coach Anthony Levrets gave them high-fives and whispered, “Good job, you guys.”

The Utes may be hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament on their own court, but they suddenly find themselves on a much bigger stage.

“Obviously there’s more importance with this game,” said Plouffe, the Mountain West freshman of the year. “But we’re going through the same motions.”

Utah, a No. 5 seed in the Mountain West tournament, upset favorites BYU and TCU to win the conference title and advance to the NCAAs.

Now the Utes are set to face Notre Dame as a No. 15 seed.

“They’ve got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of momentum going their way. I think that it’s just a really well-deserved bid to the tournament for them,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “… There was a lot on them to come through to win it all, and they played really well down the stretch. Made some huge shots, made some big plays. They’ve got to be playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

The Utes reached the Elite Eight in the 2006 NCAA tournament and last reached the field of 64 in 2009. But the current squad, composed of two seniors, one junior, six sophomores, five freshmen and a coach still labeled as “interim,” is largely untested in the national arena. They have played just one game against a team ranked in the AP poll this year, a 62-53 loss to then-No. 3 Stanford at home.

By contrast, the No. 9 Irish have played 10 games against ranked opponents this season.

Levrets said his team had faced other teams that run a similar offense to Notre Dame’s, but not at the same level of talent of the Irish.

“The offense is good, but it’s the players running it that will scare you,” he said.

Badon, the team’s only true veteran, said she works to make the team’s inexperience a non-issue.

“I’m just trying to tell my team that it’s just a regular game,” she said.

Because the Utes are hosting the game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on campus, in many ways it is just a home game. Of course, the differences come in the form of ESPN cameras, lengthened interview sessions and one of women’s basketball’s top teams.

But the junior point guard said her team wouldn’t be fazed.

“We like to stick to the basics,” she said. “Going out of our comfort zone would not be normal for us. So just acting like it’s regular. It’s the NCAA tournament, but it’s just a basketball game. Just like the other 30.”