Otahkians debut with Top-25 test

Friday, November 14, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University's women's basketball team certainly isn't easing into the season.

The Otahkians' regular-season schedule opens with an 8 p.m. game today at 19th-ranked Utah in the opening round of the Preseason NIT.

"It's a big challenge for us to open our season, but we're looking forward to it," Southeast coach B.J. Smith said. "I'm anxious to see how we react and play against that type of team. I think we're ready."

In the coming weeks, the Otahkians will face No. 5 Kansas State and No. 21 Oklahoma along with other non-league opponents prior to the Ohio Valley Conference schedule.

And that's the way Smith -- whose first Southeast squad last year was 19-11 and a best-ever second in the OVC -- wants it.

"Our expectations are very high," Smith said. "For us to go beat somebody in the NCAA Tournament and to be able to recruit the best players, this is what we need to do.

"We're playing the teams that will help us prepare for the NCAA Tournament. If we survive the schedule, then at the end of the season we'll be where we want to be."

The Utes went 24-7 last year, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and return all five starters. They are the Mountain West Conference favorites and ranked 19th in The AP Top 25 and the USA Today/ ESPN Top 25.

"Some people are picking them as a darkhorse for the Final Four," Smith said. "They're the best team I've seen on tape since I've been here -- not the most talented, but the best team."

Utah features one of the nation's premier players in 6-foot-1 sophomore forward Kim Smith, who as a freshman made honorable-mention All-American while winning the MWC's player of the year and newcomer of the year awards.

Smith led the Utes in eight statistical categories last season, including scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage. She averaged 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range.

Smith set a MWC record by scoring in double figures in 28 straight games, and she reached double figures in 30 of the Utes' 31 contests. She is one of 35 players and just three sophomores picked as a preseason candidate for the Wade Trophy, given to the nation's top player.

Another sophomore, 5-10 guard Shona Thorburn, averaged 14.7 points last year to make second-team all-conference.

As a team, Utah hit 35 percent of its 3-pointers last season and held opponents to an average of just 51 points per game.

Despite the odds facing the Otahkians, they say they look forward to the challenge of playing some of the nation's top teams.

"I like it," said senior guard Kenja White, last season's OVC newcomer of the year as she led the Otahkians in scoring. "We're a small school, and playing bigger schools like that, if we beat one of them, then we'll be recognized like that."

Smith emphasized that, even though the Otahkians will he heavy underdogs tonight, they're not making the trip west to lose their opener. They plan to win and advance to a second-round Preseason NIT game early next week, probably at California-Santa Barbara.

"We're not looking for moral victories," he said. "My plan is we're going to go win. I want our players to believe that."

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