The Utah Valley University women's basketball team plays host to the top of the early WAC standings this week when Idaho and Seattle University roll into town. The Wolverines will face the Vandals for first time since the 2005-06 season on Thursday night at 7 in the UCCU Center before renewing a more recently forged rivalry with the Redhawks of SU at 3 p.m. on Saturday in the PE Building.
This week's UVU opponents also represent the WAC's two title winners from a season ago. Seattle U claimed the regular season crown after going 15-3 in league play, while Idaho won the WAC Tournament as a three-seed, topping the top-seeded Redhawks in the final to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament and a date with eventual national champion UConn.
This season, the Vandals (11-7, 4-0 WAC) are the only WAC program without a loss in conference play, bringing a perfect 4-0 mark into the weekend. After taking care of Kansas City and Chicago State to open WAC play, Idaho remained unbeaten with home victories over Texas-Pan American and New Mexico State.
"Idaho is a very well balanced team," Utah Valley head coach Cathy Nixon said. "They're good defensively with a lot of people who contribute on the offensive end. They're really just a solid team that executes well and has multiple tools."
Junior guard Stacey Barr, a three-time WAC Player of the Week selection, leads the Vandals in both scoring and rebounding at 16.8 ppg and 7.9 rpg. Not far behind on the scoring list is Alyssa Charlston, a first All-WAC selection last season. The senior forward is averaging 15.1 ppg to go along with 7.3 rpg in 2013-14. Also in double figures is sophomore guard Christina Salvatore. After setting Idaho's program record for 3-pointers made in a season last year, Salvatore has launched 143 attempts from beyond the arc this year and has connected on 44 to help her to a 10.4 ppg average.
Idaho enters the weekend as the WAC's top rebounding club at 44.1 boards per contest, and the Vandals also pace the conference in blocked shots (4.0/g) and field goal percentage defense as opponents have shot just 36 percent against them this year.
The Wolverines are 0-2 against Idaho, dropping contests in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.
Meanwhile, Seattle U (8-9, 3-1 WAC) comes into the weekend in second place in the WAC standings sporting a 3-1 mark in the early going. The Redhawks' lone setback came in the form of a 77-65 loss at UMKC but was followed by back-to-back home wins over NM State and UTPA.
Reigning WAC Player of the Year Kacie Sowell, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, tops the list of three Redhawks averaging double figure scoring this season. Sowell leads the team at 15.6 ppg, not to mention 8.5 rpg. Senior guard Sylvia Shephard is second in the WAC in assists per game at 4.7 and also puts up 13.2 points per contest. Rounding out SU's double-digit scoring is another senior — forward Ashley Ward — at 11.4 ppg.
"We know that Seattle is a very good program, a very tough program," Nixon said. "Sowell is a very impressive player and her team complements her strengths. We'll need to be very good to keep her in check, but we've had kids step up throughout the season and hopefully they can do it again."
UVU is 1-1 all-time against Seattle U, picking up a 74-64 win in the series' opener back on Jan. 15, 2011. The Redhawks prevailed on the return leg to Seattle, however, leveling the series with a 70-41 win at home.
Utah Valley (3-12, 0-2 WAC) enters the week seeking its first WAC win after falling to Bakersfield and Grand Canyon to open the conference season. Guard Katie Kuklok continues to lead the squad in scoring at 18.7 ppg — a figure that ranks third in the WAC. Furthermore, the sophomore guard ranks second in the country in both free-throw percentage (94.4) and 3-point field goal percentage (49.0).
In each of the last four games, the Wolverines have been led in scoring by true freshman Rhaiah Spooner-Knight. The guard from Hamilton, New Zealand, has averaged 16.3 ppg over that span — almost seven points better than her season average of 9.6.
This week kicks off a stretch that sees UVU play five of its next seven WAC contests at home. The Wolverines are on the road next week at UMKC and Chicago State but will return to the UCCU Center in late January for home meetings with UTPA, NM State and GCU.
Kellen Hiser is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.