Utterback, Vermont open NCAA play at UConn

There are far less daunting environments for a women’s basketball team to open NCAA tournament play than Storrs, Connecticut.

In fact, pretty much every other venue qualifies.

Senior Emma Utterback, the former Center Grove guard who is the heart and soul of the 2022-23 Vermont team, knows this, respects this, and still wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Personally, (Connecticut) is a program I’ve been following since I was a kid, and have been a big, big fan of theirs,” said the 5-foot-8 Utterback, who leads the Catamounts (25-6) in scoring, assists and steals.

“The fact that I’ll be able to play against such great talent, it’s an honor.”

Saturday afternoon’s first-round game between the host Huskies and Vermont, the latter riding a 17-game win streak, is expected to play out in front of UConn’s customary partisan crowd of 10,167 — and a national TV audience (3 p.m., ABC).

It will be the Catamounts’ first NCAA game since losing to second-seeded Georgetown, 84-66, in the second round of the 2009-10 tourney. Overall, Vermont is dancing for a seventh time since the 1991-92 season.

Meanwhile, Connecticut is as much a March tradition as unfunny Capital One commercials — 11 national championships, a jaw-dropping 22 Final Four appearances and an assembly line of All-American players.

Two such former Huskies, Sue Bird and Maya Moore, were guards Utterback idolized when she was younger. Now she gets to play on the same court inside Gampel Pavilion that helped catapult those careers.

Perhaps lost in the excitement of the Catamounts’ golden opportunity is the fact they’ve lost only one game this calendar year — on Jan. 1 by a single point at home against UMBC.

“It’s understanding what our coach (Alisa Kresge) is asking of us, and we have been able to use our defense to stay in some games,” Utterback said. “As a senior, I try to be a leader and a positive light.

“It’s part of the culture me and the other girls in my class have built. It has rubbed off, and I think that’s why we’re winning now.”

On March 10, Vermont won a hard-fought 38-36 over Albany in the Catamounts’ 60-year-old facility, Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium, in the title game of the America East tournament.

Neither squad shot the basketball well, but Vermont, led by Utterback’s 18 points, gutted it out and secured an automatic bid and No. 15 seed.

The senior was named the tournament’s most outstanding player having averaged 16.3 points, 5 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the team’s three victories.

Patrick Gym is advertised with a seating capacity of 3,266.

In the Catamounts first nine home games this season, crowds ranged from 186 to 769 spectators. However, in the final nine home dates, Vermont, its win streak growing, exceeded 1,100 fans on six occasions.

In the win over Albany, the old building had a case of the shakes. The announced crowd for Vermont’s seventh conference title in women’s basketball was a season-high 2,502.

To Utterback, it seemed — and most certainly sounded — like more.

“That atmosphere for that game was unbelievable,” Utterback said. “That was one of the coolest experiences of my life.”

On Saturday, she’ll experience another.