Commentary

Timing is everything for Mitchell, Utes

Updated: February 29, 2008, 11:19 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Timing is everything to a point guard. Penetrate through a sliver of daylight at the wrong moment and your own aggressiveness sets up a fast break for the other team. Pass to an open teammate in the wrong place and you aid and abet the errant shot that ensues.

[+] EnlargeLeilani Mitchell
AP Photo/Steve C. WilsonUtah's Leilani Mitchell, a 5-foot-5 point guard, ranks fifth nationally at 7.2 assists per game.

So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Leilani Mitchell's decision to transfer to the University of Utah for her senior season has worked out so well for both player and program.

One of the nation's premier point guards and the catalyst for a team closing in on an unbeaten regular season in the Mountain West Conference, Mitchell has always been better than most about knowing when to make her move.

By the end of the 2005-06 season at the University of Idaho, she had made a name for herself despite toiling for a team anchored near the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference. An honorable mention All-American and finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, bestowed each season on the nation's best point guard, she averaged 17.6 points and 5.6 assists as a junior for a team that finished 10-19. Watching time tick away on her college career with little hope for improvement, she decided to take a shot at starting over.

"It was tough," Mitchell said. "Just having one year, I didn't know if schools would want to take me for that one year -- pay for two years [she had to sit out the 2006-07 season per NCAA rules] but only be able to play for that one year. That was part of what took me so long to decide as well. But finally I was like, 'You know, I might as well take the chance and try it out.'"

Former Utah assistant Daron Park, now an assistant at Maryland and Brenda Frese's stand-in during her maternity leave, remembered Mitchell from a game she played against Utah as a sophomore. He assured her there was a place for her in Salt Lake City.

After coming within a few seconds of the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Maryland in a regional final two seasons ago, Utah missed the NCAA Tournament last season for just the fourth time in the past 14 years under coach Elaine Elliott. The Utes did advance to the second round of the WNIT and finished 19-14, but in the wake of Shona Thorburn's graduation, their only true point guard had to sit and watch.

No player on Elliott's roster last season finished with more assists than turnovers. And a season after Thorburn averaged 7.1 assists alongside fellow WNBA first-round pick Kim Smith, the five players who started at least 21 games combined for just 9.1 assists per game. So even if it was only for a season, it's easy to understand why the program was happy to welcome Mitchell.

With three games left in the regular season, the senior leads the conference and ranks fifth nationally at 7.2 assists per game. And a team that shot just 40.1 percent from the field last season is shooting 47.9 percent through 27 games this season.

Mitchell playing for
mother a world away

Leilani Mitchell is playing for more than just a shot at a championship or the attention of WNBA scouts. Last May, just as she had grown accustomed to her new surroundings and new teammates, she found out her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ellie Majid, Mitchell's mother, had returned to live in her native Australia after separating from Dennis Mitchell. When the call came late at night with news of the diagnosis, it had been almost a year since mother and daughter had been together.

"I didn't know what was going to happen," Mitchell said. "And she lives in Australia, and that was hard too, because it's not like I could go see her right away and just go spend time with her."

Mitchell finally had an opportunity to visit her mother in Australia in August. But on the day she was to pick up her daughter at the airport, Majid collapsed due to what Mitchell described as a blood clot. As a result, Mitchell spent almost the entire three-week stay with her mom in the hospital. Having recovered from that and having responded well to initial chemotherapy treatments, Majid remains one of her daughter's biggest supporters, calling or texting before every game and following the action from Australia.

By her own admission a tomboy growing up with five brothers, Mitchell said she was also one of six momma's children growing up.

"She was just always there for us," Mitchell said. "She's always been important, and she's always the one who wants to hug you when you come home."

-- ESPN.com's Graham Hays

At 5-foot-5, nature might have set Mitchell on the path to being a point guard, but as the second-youngest of six children, and the only girl in the bunch, she saw the process helped along by a healthy dose of nurture in the driveways of Kennewick, Wash.

"Having all brothers, I was definitely a tomboy," Mitchell admitted. "We'd just be out there playing or playing inside, just playing sports -- football or baseball or basketball out in the driveway. … We were all competitive and we wanted to beat each other. And so we were aggressive and we'd take it to each other, and I think that's definitely helped me be a more aggressive player."

Mitchell is also second on the team in scoring at 16.6 points per game, and the aggressiveness born of being beaten up on by big brothers is evident in the fact that she leads the team by a wide margin in free-throw attempts. But beyond what shows up on the stat sheet, growing up as she did prepared her for managing teammates on the court and fitting in off the court.

"You have lots of different personalities, and just always having people around in general at home, there's always people there," Mitchell said of growing up in a big family. "And I think that's similar with a team. You know, you have to try to mesh and put everyone together and deal with people and relationships. I think it's very similar."

And it's not as if the relatively new arrival had to work miracles. Utah didn't have a pure point guard to run the show last season, but the Utes still found a way to win 19 games. Even after losing three key players to graduation, plenty of talent remained.

Free to play exclusively as a shooting guard, junior Morgan Warburton leads the team in scoring at 17.5 points per game, shoots 42.5 percent from behind the arc (up from 33.8 percent last season) and routinely guards the opposing team's best wing scorer.

"She is a great scorer in general," Mitchell said. "She can shoot the 3 -- she's a great shooter. She can drive and finish. She just has that aggressive mentality that every team needs. If we need a big basket, she wants the ball and she's going to be the one who converts most of the time on it."

And in her first season as a full-time starter, sophomore Kalee Whipple is the only player in a major conference who leads her league in the often mutually exclusive categories of field-goal percentage (52.5 percent) and 3-point percentage (47.3).

"She's got good size and strength for a wing," Mitchell said. "She's a great shooter, too, and she's really been knocking them down lately, but she can finish inside. And we look to post her up because she's got that size advantage on some smaller wings. She's physical and she likes contact."

Only this week, after 19 consecutive wins, Utah broke into the top 15 in the coaches' poll (tied at No. 15 with George Washington). But few teams outside the top tier have a stronger case for a seed on one of the top four lines in the NCAA Tournament. Utah's only losses came early in the season against Stanford, Marist and Southern California -- all teams likely bound for the NCAA Tournament -- and Utah surrendered late leads against both Stanford and Marist before ultimately losing in overtime.

With a completely retooled offense for this season built around penetration and shooting, and with only one other senior on the roster in starting forward Jessica Perry, the Utes should be better in March than they were in what still amounted to an impressive November.

"I think we've gotten a lot better defensively; we've gotten a lot more consistent," said Mitchell, whose Utes have a showdown this weekend with Wyoming. "Offensively, we're starting to get more options. Teams have figured out how to stop maybe the first and second options, so we've had to really work on getting farther into the plays and finding more options and being patient with things."

Waiting for the right moment just comes naturally when you have a good point guard around.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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