SALT LAKE CITY--Like the setting sun, slowly fading away behind the Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh Mountains lying to the west of Salt Lake City, the 1997-98 women's basketball season at the University of Utah promises to be something to behold, a spectacle marking a significant moment in time. This season marks the end of an era for the Utah program, one that ranks among the nation's elite and is the most successful in the history of the Western Athletic Conference.
The freshman class of 1994-95, the catalyst behind what has already been one of the most successful eras in Utah women's basketball, hits the hardwood together for the last time this year. And what a run they have had. In the past three years, Utah has posted 68 wins, made three-consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, and claimed a Western Athletic Conference championship of some form each season. Utah took the WAC Tournament title in 1995 and won the conference regular-season championship in 1996. Last year, the Utes won the WAC Mountain Division title and earned the fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament West Region, advancing to the second round for the first time in school history.
Those accomplishments are impressive in their own right; but the synopsis is that as seniors, the '94-95 freshman class is on the verge of walking off into the sunset as the best group to ever wear the Crimson and White. Only three times before has a class been a part of four 20-win seasons. However, none of those can lay claim to an average of 23 wins a season and a .767 winning percentage. That is what this group is capable of achieving just by maintaining the pace its had already established in the players' first three seasons together. The Utes will also be gunning for their fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, a streak that would stand alone in Utah and WAC annals.
Comprised of five freshmen and one junior college transfer, the '94-95 recruiting class couldn't have come along at a better time. The year prior to its arrival, the Utes and their fans suffered through the only losing season in the 23-year history of the program. Elaine Elliott, the WAC's all-time winningest coach with an impressive 281-127 record and .689 winning percentage was left searching for answers.
Following a period of self-evaluation, Elliott and her staff proceeded to put together what was then perceived as the best recruiting class ever signed by Utah. Those perceptions quickly became reality. Utah went 23-7 overall and 12-2 in the WAC the very next season, earning the school's first NCAA berth in four years. Amber McEwen, the junior college transfer of the group, went on to earn the WAC Most Valuable Player award as a senior in 1996. Four of the five freshmen: Amy Alcorn, Alli Bills, Julie Krommenhoek and Laura Ross Allen comprise four-fifths of this year's senior class. Fifth-year senior Angie Thill, who came on board in '93-94, rounds out the group of veterans Elliott is counting on to lead this team as far as it can go.
"You can see in black and white what that group of kids has already done in three years," says Elliott, who embarks on her 15th season as Utah's head coach. "This has been my best experience as a coach, not only because of what they've done, but because of who they are."
When asked to put into words her feelings as she enters this season, knowing that it will be her last with the class that has already left an indelible mark on the Utah program and her career, Elliott remained silent for a moment--clearly with thoughts and emotions drifting over her mind that she would rather not have.
"I don't like to look at the end of this year because I'm not looking forward to this ending," confides Elliott. "I'm trying to focus on the excitement and potential of this season, because I need to. Neither I nor the seniors can look beyond just having another fun year. If we do, we'll get too caught up in the emotions surrounding all of this and run the risk of getting away from the things that have allowed us to be successful."
The Overall Picture
It is almost a foregone conclusion that Krommenhoek and Bills, both three-year starters, will exit stage left as the best guard tandem in Utah and WAC history. Ten letterwinners in all return from last year's team, which produced the most successful season of the Elliott era and the second-most wins all-time at the U. with a 25-6 record and won the WAC Mountain Division title by four games with a 15-1 mark.
Krommenhoek, a 5-9 shooting guard from American Fork, Utah, has earned honorable mention Kodak All-America honors all three years of her career. With 1,542 points, Krommenhoek is on pace to eclipse the Utah and WAC career scoring marks this season. She has already established herself as the best three-point shooter in school and conference history.
Bills, a 5-7 point guard from Sandy, Utah, led the NCAA in assists with an average of 7.6 a game last season after coming back from a career threatening knee injury. Despite playing in just eight games her sophomore year, tearing the ACL in her right knee twice within an eight month span, Bills has already dished out 400 assists and should eclipse the Utah and WAC all-time records this season.
Among the other returning letterwinners, Allen, a 6-2 forward from Sparks, Nev., began last season at the starting center and averaged 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds a game. Alcorn, a 5-8 guard from Oregon City, Ore., and Thill, a 6-0 forward from Belt, Mont., have been solid role players throughout their careers, and will be afforded the opportunity to contribute more this season.
With a core of experienced players back to lead a very talented team, it is easy to see why optimism runs high that 1997-98 could be the most successful season in the program's history. Utah has won conference championships and advanced to the NCAA Tournament before--and achieving those goals will be first and foremost this season--but could a trip to the NCAA "Sweet 16" and a Top 25 national ranking also lie on the horizon?
"For the first time in the NCAA history of this program, we have the potential to see beyond what any other Utah team has ever done," says Elliott. "We've been to the second round of the NCAA Tournament now, so reaching the 'Sweet 16' isn't just some dream, it's a reality.
"As far as earning the respect I feel we've deserved for so long, and breaking into the Top 25, I've kind of reached a personal compromise with that," she continues. "I'm going to try my hardest to get this team to that point, and we're going to go for it. However, since we play in the Intermountain region, it's tough to get respect on a national level. I have long since quit worrying about the voting system for the national polls because it's out of my control and, personally, I don't care if we make it or not. But, these kids deserve to be ranked among the nation's best if they realize their potential."
In order for this team to achieve its goals, Elliott must find a way to replace the entire starting front line of a year ago in Hilary King-Noel, Lisa Thueson and Sara Works. King-Noel, a three-year starter at power forward, earned second-team all-WAC honors and averaged 11.0 points and 7.5 rebounds a game last season. Thueson and Works came in as junior college transfers and had very productive abbreviated careers. Thueson started every game the past two years, averaging 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. Works contributed 10.2 points and 5.2 rebounds last season, starting the final 26 games.
"Those three players were emblematic of the tough-minded, competitive team that took the floor night in and night out last year," says Elliott. "Replacing them is going to be an interesting scenario. They will be replaced in part with players who have very little experience, but possibly more ability and potential. The unanswered part of the equation is what the new kids will bring in mental toughness and competitiveness. Those three seniors provided that last year, and those elements played a big part in us becoming a record-setting team instead of one that was just average."
Physically, the Utes will be smaller up front compared to last year, but they will also be more athletic. To help fill the void created by the loss of Works and potential back-ups Julie Tyler and Laura Fowler, who transferred, Elliott has brought in three athletic freshmen who measure between 6-0 and 6-1.
"Our personnel has changed somewhat from last year; however, we aren't going to make any wholesale changes in what we do," reveals Elliott. "We may make some subtle changes--just like we do every year--and we should have more options because of our athleticism. But, we're going to stay with our motion game offensively, play tough hard-nosed defense, and run when the opportunity is there just like we have been."
Very few things have been as beautiful to watch for the last three years as Krommenhoek getting a perfect pass from Bills and effortlessly knocking down another three. Without question, as Krommenhoek and Bills go, so go the Utes.
"Alli and Julie are the heart and soul of this team," says Elliott. "They are really a pair of classy kids. Everyone understood when they came in that they were going to be the backbone of this team. That's the way it has been for the past three years, and that's the way it's going to be again this year."
Last season, Krommenhoek was named the WAC Mountain Division Player of the Year and ranked fourth in the conference in scoring with an average of 17.4 points a game. Krommenhoek was also second in the nation in three-pointers per game (3.3), fourth in three-point percentage (42.2) and 18th in free throw percentage (84.3).
"Julie deserves to be considered as one of the top players in the country," raves Elliott. "If she's not the best pure shooter in the nation, then she's definitely one of the top three. It's easy to appreciate the flashy drivers, but it takes a more practiced eye to appreciate the skills that Julie has. The difference between what she does to get her shot off compared to a one-on-one player is night and day. She has a very high level of understanding of the game. She reads screens very well, and has a point guard who finds her."
Finding Krommenhoek at opportune times helped Bills set a school record with 213 assists last year, but she also demonstrated that she is more than just a great passer. Bills averaged 8.4 points a game, shot 33.9 percent from behind the arc, and posted the first triple double in school history with 13 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists at Colorado State on Feb. 26.
"Alli has learned how to be a point guard, and we win when she leads us in assists and gets the ball to the right people at the right time," explains Elliott. "But, Alli is also capable of shooting the three-point shot, and to take her game to the next level Alli has to learn to step up and shoot the three consistently to hurt opposing defenses when they start to back off on her."
As far as her expectations of Krommenhoek and Bills this season, Elliott says she has already received everything she could ask for. This year, she just wants them to go out and have fun.
"I think all of your top-notch athletes understand that the best way to perform well in competition is to gain an understanding of your talents, and then to just go out and enjoy competing. Great performances combine an intense focus with relaxation. Athletes like Julie and Alli have already had that intense focus in getting themselves to the level that they are at now; the fun should follow," says Elliott.
Plenty of depth lies behind the dynamic duo in a backcourt that returns everyone from last year. Alcorn, Krommenhoek's back-up her entire career, may be one of the best players ever to come through the Utah program that hasn't become a star. A quick slasher and penetrator, Alcorn was hampered last season by a stress fracture in her left leg and missed the first nine games. She came back to play in 18 contests, averaging 2.3 points in 8.4 minutes a game during the league season.
Elliott vows again to try to find Alcorn more playing time this season, either by giving Krommenhoek more breathers or perhaps utilizing Alcorn at small forward. "Amy has been an exceptional role player for us, and she's handled that situation better than any player I've ever coached," says Elliott. "But in some ways she has only been limited by me. We're going to try our hardest to find more minutes for Amy somewhere. A lot of that will be dictated by match-ups and game-by-game scenarios."
Tiana Fuertes, a 5-3 sophomore from Honolulu, Hawaii, will again back up Bills this year. Fuertes is an exceptional ball handler who loves to penetrate and, despite struggling with her shot last season, has excellent three-point range. She averaged 13.7 minutes in 30 games last year, and performed well as a substitute starter when Bills missed three games early in the season due to injury.
"Tiana's not a freshman any more," stresses Elliott. "We used her in critical situations last year. If I have Tiana and Amy on the floor instead of Alli and Julie, I'd feel very comfortable and expect great intensity and effort from them."
ReShawnda Richardson will get her first game experience this season after sitting out last year as a partial qualifier under NCAA admissions standards. The 5-7 sophomore from Long Beach, Calif., made tremendous strides in practice last season. Richardson will be used primarily at small forward, where her great jumping ability will be an asset on the boards. "ReShawnda's as good as any rebounder that we have," says Elliott. "She can also be explosive on the wing in a running game. The only hesitation I have is that she hasn't played in a game and still needs to prove herself when she steps on the floor."
Janna Whitman, a 5-10 shooting guard from Woods Cross, Utah, returns for her second year after making marked improvement the latter part of last season. "Janna's really a classy kid," says Elliott. "She still has a ways to go in her development, but I know she'll dig down and give us everything she has."
Rosie Shelley, a junior from American Fork, Utah, returns for her third year as a walk-on. Shelley plays both of the guard positions.
The athleticism on the Utes' front line is arguably the deepest it has ever been. However, much of that talent is untested with two sophomores and three freshmen joining the two seniors, Allen and Thill. The three starters that must be replaced accounted for 43 percent of Utah's' points and 42 percent of its rebounds a year ago. The Utes' ability to score inside is almost a given. The questions lie in the frontcourt's ability to rebound and play the type of pressure defense that has been the signature of Elliott's teams.
One of the most important pieces of the puzzle is Allen. As the Utes' starting center in the first five games last season, the former Laura Ross posted 8.2 points and 4.4 rebounds a game. She played in 26 games overall, averaging just under 13 minutes. Elliott plans to play Allen more at power forward, her natural position, where her versatile offensive game should be an asset. "Laura has very nice offensive skills and can shoot with good range," states Elliott. "The key for her is to get more physical and make a commitment to defending and rebounding."
Battling Allen for playing time will be Thill, a tough gutty competitor who isn't afraid to mix it up inside. Thill played well off the bench in spurts last season, averaging 7.5 minutes in 26 games. In order to get more playing time this season, the fifth-year senior needs to improve her offensive game and become more consistent. "Angie gives us an established rebounder inside," says Elliott. "She's a little undersized for the four position, but if she can make a stronger commitment to defending and keeps improving her shooting abilities, she'll see more playing time."
If there's a player on the roster who is on the verge of a breakthrough season, it is Kristi Rose, a 6-4 sophomore from Palmdale, Calif. The leading candidate to start at center, Rose averaged 10.2 minutes, 2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds in 30 games in '96-97. Rose gives Utah the size it needs inside, and has the complete package offensively with the ability to score down low as well as step out and knock down the three. Rose also poses a shot blocking threat. Last season, she swatted away 34 opponents' shots, which equaled the eighth-highest mark in a single-season at the U. and the most ever recorded by a freshman.
"Kristi's a young, big kid with very fine skills," raves Elliott. "She just seems to get better every single day. I'm not worried about her offense, but I do have some concerns about her ability to fill a role on the boards. If she wants to be successful and works hard, there's no doubt in my mind that she could be the best post player to ever come out of this program."
Lori Red, a 5-11 sophomore from Provo, Utah, is the heir apparent at small forward. Red was splitting time equally with Thueson early last season and played in all 31 games, averaging 10 minutes and 2.5 points. Blessed with very good offensive skills, Red has three-point range as well as the ability to create her own shot off the dribble. She also possesses good size and the jumping ability necessary to be a solid rebounder.
"Lori's ability to step in and be the starter at the three position is vital to replacing our front line," emphasizes Elliott. "In order for that to happen, she must be more aggressive and make a commitment to defend and rebound."
The three freshmen could also contribute in their first year if they are quick studies of the college game and Elliott's system.
Kristina Anderson (6-1, Eugene, Ore.) was a USA Today All-American in 1996 and the 3A Player of the Year in Oregon in 1997. Anderson is a good shooter with three-point range who is as comfortable playing on the wing as she is down on the block. Amy Ewert (6-0, Vancouver, B.C.) is the first Canadian to play for Elliott and will start out at the three and four positions. She is superb on the open floor, and could eventually end up playing at the two guard before her career at Utah ends. Lindsay Sodja (6-1, Taylorsville, Utah) was one of the top high school players in the state of Utah last year. The three-time first-team all-state selection has a very nice shooting touch and will swing between the forward positions.
"We have some real nice possibilities in the frontcourt with all of the newcomers," says Elliott. "We are a lot bigger on the wings, and the new kids have a lot of potential. Now it is up to our coaching staff and our veterans to pull it out of them. We need to get them to want it as bad as we do."
In the ever-changing landscape of the new WAC, Utah will be aligned in the Mountain Division once again this season. While Brigham Young, New Mexico and UTEP remain from last year, Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV and Wyoming replace Rice, SMU, TCU and Tulsa. Rice, however, will remain on Utah's schedule as its crossover opponent.
The Utes should receive some of their stiffest competition within the division from Colorado State, which just missed the NCAA Tournament last season. Elliott also expects an improving New Mexico team and a revitalized BYU program under a new head coach to be a factor in the Mountain Division race. Rice should contend for the Pacific Division title and an NCAA bid this season, bringing back four starters from last year's team that tied for second behind the Utes in the WAC Mountain.
Utah's non-conference schedule includes a potential match-up with Kansas State, which advanced to the "Big Dance" last year, in the Wildcats' own tournament on Dec. 6. The Utes also travel to Montana on Dec. 13. The Lady Griz return five starters from a team that won 25 games and played in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Tradition-rich Arkansas, bringing back three starters from last year's 18-10 team, will be Utah's opponent in the first-ever DMC Holiday Shootout on Dec. 21 in Ft. Worth, Texas. The Utes open the regular season at Weber State on Nov. 14.
The End of an Era
To look at this season as a the finality of Utah's recent success would be going too far. After all, as long as Elliott is on the Hill and the level of talent in the Utah program remains at its current level, you can bet that the Utes will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
So, the 1997-98 season merely marks the end of a very successful chapter, not the end of the story. And before the season comes to a close, this team may very well give Utah women's basketball its brightest moment in the sun. Revel in its splendor before it fades away.