Suddenly, Utes are welcome in these parts
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When coach Elaine Elliott brings her Utah team to New Mexico, the Utes are usually targeted by fans howling in support of the rival Lobos.
Well, blame it on those dusty springtime winds, but something strange is happening in the Duke City. The Utes -- Mountain West Conference rivals with New Mexico -- are looking like a fan favorite in the NCAA tournament's regional semifinals.
"We've had some nice e-mails coming in to our program from their fans, just saying they're Lobo people but they're going to be here to support us,'' Elliott said Friday. "And that's fair. That's a great response.''
The No. 5 seeded Utes (26-6) play No. 8 Boston College (21-11) on Saturday (ESPN, 11 p.m. ET), shortly after a tantalizing matchup between No. 3 Baylor (26-6), last year's NCAA champion, and No. 2 seeded Maryland (30-4), which play at 9 p.m. ET (ESPN).
A road trip to Albuquerque normally isn't something the Utes relish. New Mexico's boisterous fan support is among the best in the country for women's basketball. This season the Lobos drew an average crowd of 10,354.
"This place, for a regional, will set the standard,'' Elliott said. "The support here for women's basketball is just incredible, so I think we're all fortunate this is where we're going to play.''
It's a tough place for a road team, no doubt. But to hear the Utes describe their return, The Pit feels like a comfort zone.
"It was one of those things where, 'Oh good. We're done with The Pit,' '' said Mountain West co-player of the year Kim Smith, recalling a January loss at New Mexico. "But now, we're so excited to be playing in The Pit. It's great to play where you're used to the rims. You're used to the gym. You know your way around, which is nice.''
Even better for the Utes, they apparently have attracted New Mexico's fans. Last week at the subregional in Tucson, Ariz., Lobo supporters were disappointed about losing to Baylor but stayed to cheer for the rival Utes against Arizona State.
"It was fun to be at the same site,'' said Elliott, in her 23rd season coaching the Utes. "My team went to their game and their team was at our game. All of our fans were for the Mountain West Conference. It was a really positive thing.''
But will it be an advantage on the court?
Boston College is coming off a first-round NCAA win over Notre Dame and an upset over top-seeded Ohio State, a stirring weekend for the Eagles after five straight losses ended the regular season and ACC tournament.
The formula for BC was simple. Forget about that five-game skid.
"We just came into practice and looked back on what we were doing well before the losing streak and what we were doing bad,'' forward Brooke Queenan said. "We just addressed the problem. Everyone came back. We started talking about individual responsibility.''
BC coach Cathy Inglese conceded the Utes are likely to benefit from their familiarity with The Pit. As for other intangibles, such as crowd noise, that's beyond her control.
"They're in the same conference and they've played here,'' Inglese said. "Will that be an advantage? Probably. But we didn't really talk about that to the players. We don't want to give them an out. Those are things we can't do anything about.''
Queenan promised the Eagles won't be intimidated.
"We've played at UConn,'' she said. "We've played in big arenas, small arenas. I think we're pretty much prepared for anything.''
The Maryland-Baylor contest should be a dandy. Both teams have talent throughout their lineups and the ability able to score at any position. The Terps have five players who average in double figures.
The difference? So much depends on whether Maryland can contain Baylor's Sophia Young.
Young was the most outstanding player of last year's Final Four, and she took over last week when Baylor beat New Mexico in the second round by scoring 15 of her 21 points in the second half. She has averaged 26.3 points and 11.9 rebounds in the last seven games.
"If you cover her one-on-one, she can beat any defender,'' Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "If you double her, she is a tremendous passer out of the double-team. She is a very difficult matchup for us inside. We're just going to try to play good defense."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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