Utah's Leilani Mitchell dishing her way to the tourney
Posted: Tuesday February 26, 2008 1:40PM; Updated: Tuesday February 26, 2008 1:40PM
Three years ago, Leilani Mitchell was a sophomore point guard at Idaho when she first saw the Utah Utes and their coach, Elaine Elliott, at a Thanksgiving tournament in Hawaii. After watching the Utes' creative, fast-paced offense for the weekend, she was sold. "Every time we'd come down the floor, they'd call out the plays we were about to run," Mitchell remembers, "That impressed me."
A year later, Mitchell decided she was tired of just watching the offense -- she wanted to run it. When her high school coach and Idaho assistant and two of her high school turned college teammates left Idaho after her junior year, the 5-foot-5 Washington native transferred to Utah, looking for a better shot at an NCAA title.
Now after sitting out last year, Mitchell is running an offense that Elliott has completely overhauled to exploit the talents of Mitchell and her teammates. Known as a motion team in the past, the Utes now use ball screens to set up more penetration, draw and kick opportunities for their three perimeter players -- Mitchell, sophomore Kalee Whipple, and junior Morgan Warburton -- who combined are shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. "We do maybe 10 percent of what we did last year," says Elliott. "We don't run any motion this year. We want the ball in Lei's hands, and we want to keep it in her hands."
Thanks to that strategy, Utah, which was picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West conference, is now 23-3 (12-0 in the Mountain West), ranked 18th in the country and tied a school record with an 18-game winning streak. The Utes haven't lost since dropping a 62-45 decision at USC on Dec. 3, and the two losses before that were both in overtime.
The key to Utah's surprising success has been Mitchell, who averages 16.7 points on 48 percent shooting and dishes out 7.2 assists a game. "She makes things happen for everyone on the floor," says junior Morgan Warburton, one of the main beneficiaries of Mitchell's arrival in Salt Lake City. After spending most of last year out of position at the point, Warburton is back in her comfort zone on the wing, where she is averaging 17.4 points. "The way Lei sees the floor is amazing," says Warburton. "It's like she knows what's going to happen at certain times. It's fun to watch and really fun to be a part of."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose seventh-ranked Cardinal took two overtimes to subdue the Utes back in November, says Mitchell reminds her of New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul. "She's small and quick, she penetrates well, she has excellent vision, she creates for other people, and she creates havoc with her ability to beat people off the dribble," says VanDerveer. "And she plays in a system that fits her and with people who complement her well. We had our hands full guarding her."
Elliot, who is in her 24th year in Salt Lake City, calls Mitchell the best point guard her program has ever had. "I haven't seen anybody that complete," she says. "Lei has a great handle, so you can't press because she can break presses. She can shoot the three. She has a midrange jump shot, and she absolutely finishes at the rim. And in the midst of all those options, she is a great passer. When she draws help, she will find an open player."
Mitchell's assists numbers are most remarkable when you consider that the Utah, with just eight healthy scholarship players, don't have the depth to push tempo and create transition opportunities. Neither do the Utes have a dominant post player Mitchell can dump the ball to. "If she had someone like (Maryland's) Crystal Langhorne to throw it into, Lei would average 12 or 13 assists a game," says Elliott.
Mitchell honed her passing skills playing on the driveway with her five brothers, four of whom are older and all of whom are taller. "I'd have to use my quickness," she says. "If you drive and then run into those taller people, you can't always shoot it, so you have to find a way to pass the ball, too."
When Mitchell decided to transfer after her junior year, Utah was one of the first places she sent her release. "We'd had the pleasure of having to prepare to play her, so we knew how good she was," says Elliott. "It was an easy decision."
Because of that decision, the once-unheralded Utes are now a threat to go deep in the NCAA tournament. "I think we can do really well in the postseason," says Mitchell, one of nine finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given to the best point guard in the country. "The coaches are always coming up with new things, so we're not just running the same offense. If we otherwise stay consistent, I think we might surprise some people."