Three of the nation’s most prolific scorers headline the field of the 2018 Duel in the Desert.
The eight-team field taking the floor inside the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas includes Florida with 19.4-point-per-game scorer Funda Nakkasoglu; Washington State and 21.7-point-per-game scorer Borislava Hristova; and Utah with 20.9-point-per-game scorer Megan Huff.
Huff leads a Utes bunch that is rolling into Sin City off to a perfect, 9-0 start. Her 23 points in Utah’s last outing, a 77-56 rout of Weber State, has Huff on a four-game streak with 20 or more ahead of Thursday’s matchup with Florida.
With a perfect showing at the Duel in the Desert, the Utes can carry an 11-0 mark into Pac-12 Conference play. They are receiving votes in the latest Associated Press top-25 poll and can position for a bid into the NCAA Tournament -- a clear goal after reaching the Women’s NIT in each of coach Lynne Roberts’ first four seasons.
“I say that with the utmost sincerity that I want to make the NCAA Tournament,” Roberts said at Pac-12 media day before the season. “It's a process and we're doing it. I can sense that our program is definitely heading in the right direction.”
Continuing the positive momentum into conference competition means slowing Florida’s Nakkasoglu, who returned from the lineup last week after suffering an ankle injury on Nov. 21. Nakkasoglu scored 14 points in a 46-41 loss to 2018 Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State.
“[Nakkasoglu] demands a defensive presence at all times,” Florida head coach Cam Newbauer said in the postgame press conference. “We need to find ways to get other people more involved in knocking down some shots because teams are going to continue to try to take her away.”
The Utah-Florida matchup on Thursday rounds out opening-round competition, which begins with a trio of games on Wednesday. The winner of the Duel-opening contest between host UNLV and Hawaii faces the Utah-Florida winner on Friday.
The Lady Rebels return home for the first time in almost three weeks after a road swing that took them to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Oregon. UNLV went winless on the trip, but Lady Rebels coach Kathy Olivier sees improvement in her team ahead of the Duel.
“We gave a great effort, we've really been playing hard these past few games. Great job on the boards, really good defensive effort,” she said following a Dec. 15 loss at Portland State. “We're getting better.”
Wednesday’s other games pit Wichita State against Northwestern and Washington State versus Kansas.
The 6-4 Wichita State Shockers opened the season 5-1 and snapped a three-game skid in their last outing ahead of the Duel. Wichita State employs one of the most balanced offensive approaches in the nation, with not a single scorer averaging in double-figures, but seven players who have appeared in at least nine games averaging from 5.1 to 9.9 points per game.
Like Wichita State, Northwestern ended a three-game skid prior to converging on Las Vegas, with games against top-25-ranked Marquette and DePaul.
Northwestern’s style contrasts with its Wednesday opponent Wichita State, as four Wildcats come in averaging in double-figures, paced by Lindsey Pulliam’s 15.3 points per game. Wichita State must also contend with Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who is averaging a double-double at 11.9 points and 11.6 rebounds per.
The Northwestern-Wichita State winner advances to Thursday and will face the winner of Wednesday’s middle game between Washington State and Kansas.
Both the Cougars and Jayhawks come off 10-day layoffs, with Washington State falling to No. 22-ranked Gonzaga on Dec. 9 and Kansas routing Grambling on the same day to extend its impressive start to 7-1.
The Jayhawks look to leave Las Vegas with a few additions to an early-season resume that includes a win at LSU. Kansas features a trio of double-figure scorers, paced by Jessica Washington’s 15.5 points per game. In recent outings, Kylee Kopatich has come alive.
“Kylee has been really good now for three games in a row,” Kansas coach Brandon Schneider said following the Grambling win. “She was by far the best player at LSU and at Nebraska. I just think she really feels comfortable right now in her role.”
Kopatich’s surge of late adds to the impressive collection of individuals shaping this year’s Duel in the Desert field.
Names to Know: Funda Nakkasoglu (19.4 PPG); Delicia Washington (14.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.7 APG); Zada Williams (7.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG)
Names to Know: Makenna Woodfolk (14.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.7 SPG); Leah Salanoa (10.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
Names to Know: Jessica Washington (15.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG; 1 SPG); Kylee Kopatich (10 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.9 SPG); Christalah Lyons (10.1 PPG, 3.4 APG, 2 SPG)
Names to Know: Lindsey Pulliam (15.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG); Jordan Hamilton (12 PPG, 3.9 APG -- missed last game due to injury); Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah (11.9 PPG, 11.6 RPG); Abi Scheid (11.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG)
Names to Know: Katie Powell (14.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG); Nikki Wheatley (9.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG); Rodjanae Wade (8 PPG, 5.6 RPG)
Names to Know: Megan Huff (20.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG); Dre’Una Edwards (12.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.4 SPG); Daneesha Provo (12.8 PPG, 2.3 SPG)
Names to Know: Borislava Hristova (21.7 PPG, 5.2 PRG); Chanelle Molina (15.1 PPG, 6 APG, 4.9 RPG); Maria Kostourkova (8 PPG, 9.8 RPG); Alexys Swedlund (11.7 PPG, 2.6 SPG)
Names to Know: Sabrina Lozada-Cabbage (9.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.3 SPG); Carla Bremaud (9.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG); Seraphine Bastin (7.3 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG)
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.