USC opened the NCAA West Regional women's basketball tournament Wednesday night with a 63-52, first-round victory over a visiting Utah team overmatched in size and speed.
The Trojans, in the tournament for the first time since 1988, were relentless on defense, utilizing a zone that frustrated the Utes on the inside and out.
"They played a good zone, and we haven't faced a zone all season," Utah Coach Elaine Elliott said. "It was a definite factor."
The Utes made only five of 30 shots in the first half (17%) and turned the ball over 14 times, 24 in the game.
Trojan guard Tammy Story had five steals in the period and finished with six of the Trojans' 16 steals.
USC freshman Lisa Leslie started the game with a three-point shot, and the Trojans had a 29-10 lead with 3:30 left in the first half and a 33-17 lead at intermission.
But USC, which will play Cal State Long Beach in the second round Saturday, showed its youth and inexperience in the second half.
Leading by 21 points with 12:56 remaining in the game, the Trojans began to rush the ball down court.
They turned the ball over 11 times in the second half, and the Utes went on a 7-0 run.
Kelly Shaheen then found the range from outside, her three-point basket with 4:36 left making it 51-40. Another with 1:15 to go made it 57-49. Yet another with 41 seconds remaining cut the lead to 59-52.
It was too late, however. Story and Leslie combined to make four free throws in the closing minute to secure the victory before 953 at USC's Lyon Center.
Utah finished its season at 20-10. The Trojans are 18-11.
"I felt we were in control of the game, but I didn't like the way we kept giving them the ball back," USC Coach Marianne Stanley said. "We played intense defensively; I was a little disappointed with our offense."
As usual, Leslie had trouble staying out of foul trouble. She left the game with her second personal foul--and eight points--10 minutes into the game, with her team leading, 16-6.
She wouldn't return until the second half and would finish with four fouls.
"It always bothers me," she said of her foul trouble. "I guess it's just something we'll have to live with."
As she often does, however, Leslie led all scorers with 16 points. She had seven rebounds, one behind Kim Gessig, who had a team high.
USC guard Joni Easterly was second to Leslie with 13 points. Story had eight.
Utah, whose tallest starter is 6 feet 2, did a surprisingly good job handling the 6-5 Leslie.
Mikki Kane, at 6 feet, had a game-high 10 rebounds, 6-2 Zachary and 5-5 Melanee Brooks-McQueen eight apiece.
But the Utes were unable to do much with the ball, until it was too late.
Elliott placed a large part of the blame for her team's first-half effort on tournament jitters--and on her decision not to go to Shaheen earlier.
"We're not a great perimeter team, at shooting threes," she said. "But Kelly got hers; I should have put her up top sooner."
Zachary led the Utes with 12 points. Kane had 11, and Karen Alcorn and Shaheen had 10 apiece.
The Utes have not won an NCAA tournament game in four tries--three in the last three years.