LAS VEGAS (AP) – Freshman Michelle Plouffe needed a pep talk after her mid-game shooting slump sent her confidence crashing.
After her spirits picked up, her shots fell and she lifted the Utah Utes to the Mountain West Conference tournament title and an automatic NCAA berth with a 52-47 overtime win against TCU on Saturday.
“I guess once I started missing a few shots, I started not shooting it,” Plouffe said. “My teammates told me and my coaches told me that I needed to shoot it, and I did.
“Then I just started making ’em when it mattered.”
Plouffe hit a key bucket in the closing minutes of regulation and then scored eight of her 24 points in overtime as the fifth-seeded Utes (18-16) earned the league’s automatic NCAA bid by winning four games in five days after finishing just 7-9 in the MWC during the regular season.
“We started playing well right at the right time,” Utes interim coach Anthony Levrets said.
Plouffe, whose buzzer-beater eliminated top-seeded BYU in the semifinals, hit a key 3-pointer with 1:14 left in regulation before Briesha Wynn’s drive to the basket with 9.2 seconds left tied it at 42.
In overtime, Plouffe sank a turnaround jumper to give the Utes the lead for good at 46-45 with 1:52 left, then sank a pair of free throws for a three-point lead. In the final minute, she hit an 18-foot jumper from the top of the circle and capped the scoring with two more free throws with 14 seconds left.
Plouffe, the league’s freshman of the year, also pulled down 11 rebounds, eight off the defensive glass, and Iwalani Rodrigues added 13 points.
Second-seeded TCU (22-10) had won eight of nine but was playing in just its second game in the league’s staggered bracket that gives the top two seeds byes until the semifinals. The rust showed when the Horned Frogs fell behind 16-2 after 9 minutes.
Fatigue set in for the Utes, however, as they shot just 4 for 22 in the second half, scoring just 12 points. They relinquished their lead on Emily Carter’s free throw with 3:51 left in regulation that put TCU ahead 38-37.
“I wouldn’t say we lost our legs,” said Janita Badon, the tournament’s MVP. “TCU is a really good team. They’re very talented offensively. But, I don’t know. We knew they were going to go on a run. But we just knew how we had to respond, and we did that.”
Rachel Rentschler’s 3-pointer capped an 8-0 spurt that brought TCU to 24-19, but Rodrigues hit 3-point buzzer-beaters from each corner as the Utes took a 30-20 lead into the locker room.
“It’s been the Achilles’ heel for this basketball team, is that they have dug themselves some holes,” TCU coach Jeff Mittie said. “Today we had to use so much energy coming back.”
“We obviously wanted to get a good start,” Helena Sverrisdottir said. “That didn’t happen. They were really physical. We should have known. We knew that they were a physical team. But it kind of surprised us. They were checking us on every cut.
“But I think, you know, second half we came together.”
The Utes may have been the underdog with a less experienced roster, but this was their third straight title game appearance and seventh overall. They won the title in 2009, then fell to San Diego State in overtime last year.
The Utes, who have won this tournament four times, became the first fifth seed ever to cut down the nets. This was the last MWC tournament for Utah, which joins the Pac-12 next season along with Colorado.
Delisa Gross and Sverrisdottir each scored 10 points for TCU, which was playing in its first Mountain West championship game.
“We finally made it to the title game for our senior year, and to lose in it hurts,” Carter said. “It hurts pretty bad. We fought back. We fought hard. I think we let them get up early. We fought back until the end, but they just made more plays down the stretch.”
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)