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Utah Women’s Basketball Has Lofty Goals, Remain Focused On ‘Process’

Nov 15, 2022, 1:25 PM
Lynne Roberts - Utah Utes Women's Basketball...
Utah women's basketball head coach Lynne Roberts. (Photo courtesy of Kory Mortensen, Utah Athletics)
(Photo courtesy of Kory Mortensen, Utah Athletics)

SALT LAKE CITY –ย A top-25 ranking is just the tip of the iceberg for the University of Utah women’s basketball program on the verge of becoming a contender, year-after-year, in the always difficult Pac-12 conference.

After receiving votes in previous polls, Utah moved into the No. 25 spot in the Associated Press poll. This is the first time the Utes have been ranked since Feb. 4, 2019.

Competing against perennial national title contenders like the Stanford Cardinal, led by Hall of Fame head coach Tar VanDerveer; and the Arizona Wildcats, coached by the charismatic and uber-competitive Adia Barnes, the Utes have their work cut out for them.

Head coach Lynne Roberts, in her eighth season in charge of the program, has built a young & talented team that may challenge for conference supremacy.

Last season, the Utes seemed on the precipice of something big. But every time a chance to take the next step presented itself, Utah’s inexperience showed.

The Utes led by as many as seven points in the second-half in an eventual loss at home to No. 2 Stanford. Ten days later, Utah trailed by a single point with 2:17 remaining at home against No. 19 Oregon before falling by four.

But once the Utes reached the Pac-12 tournament, a battle tested group had found their mojo. Needing at least a pair of wins for a chance at receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Roberts and the Utes knocked off Cal 66-60 in the first round before taking out Washington State in the second round.

That win set up a rematch with the Oregon Ducks.

Already 0-2 against the Ducks, freshman Gianna Kneepkens scored 24 points, carrying Utah to an 80-73 upset win, advancing to the Pac-12 championship for the first time in program history.

Utah went on to lose to defending national champion Stanford in the title game, but the Utes had done enough to earn that coveted at-large bid, the programs first appearance in the postseason tournament since 2011.

As a seven seed, Roberts led the Utes to a 92-69 first round win against Arkansas before succumbing to Texas in the second round.

Focusing On Process Over Results

With a top-25 ranking under their belts already, the Utes have begun checking off some of their preseason goals.

Roberts cautions against looking too far ahead, “I think teams can get ahead of themselves with their end of season goals. Which we have, but you can’t be talking about that today. Focus on the process.”

“It’s not about how many points did you score? How many assists did you get? It’s how many great shots did we take? How many rebounds did we get? How many turnovers did we have? I think if you want them to focus on that, then you have to reward and celebrate those things.”

Utah lost just two players from their postseason run. Senior guard Dru Gylten will play her last season of eligibility at South Dakota State University. Sophomore Brynna Maxwell left the program for Gonzaga.

Three Utes were named to Pac-12 preseason lists as Kennady McQueen received Pac-12 preseason honorable mention. Sophomores Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson were each named to the Pac-12 preseason all-conference team.

Utah added three highly projected freshman players in Teya Sidberry, Lani White and Naya Ojukwu, but the Utes most impactful newcomer might have come out of the transfer portal.

Roberts points to Alissa Pili, a player she has coached against for the past three seasons as the as the person that could have the most potential impact.

“I joke with her that I tried to call her out of high school and she never called me back,” Roberts said of the junior from Alaska. “So it’s nice that she answered my call this time.”

Pili, who spent the past three season’s at USC, brings 63 games of experience and has already received a host of recognition for her play. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (2019-20), joins another Freshman of the Year (Kneepkens) with hopes of helping Utah take that next step.

“Watching them play, I could tell they’re a tight knit group and they played for each other,” Pili said of her decision to join the Utes. “I just wanted to go somewhere where I knew I had trust in my teammates, and I knew they had trust in me. I just felt like the style of play was a perfect fit for me.”

“She has a lot of Pac-12 experience. Freshman of the Year, all-Pac-12 player,” Roberts said. “I think what she brings is so unique.”

Pili cites her strength that offers an advantage, “I think my low post game is one of my biggest strengths because I’m a lot stronger than the people I play against. I use that in sealing off and using my strength to bury defenders and get easy buckets around the rim.”

For a team that shoots 40.5 percent from three and has five players above 40 percent from deep on five or more attempts, Pili’s ability in the post opens up opportunities for the offense as a whole.

“It’s usually an easy bucket if I have the right positioning,” Pili said. “But being surrounded by shooters, it just opens a lot up for us. Teams will double team in the post and once they do that, we could just kick them out to the shooters and kill them on the three. Team’s have to pick their poison with us.”

After seeing her production drop over the last two seasons with the Trojans, Pili looks tailor-made for the Utes. Three games in, she is averaging 17 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while knocking down shots at a 70 percent clip.

How good can these team be?

“I’ve already seen a big improvement just from these last few games that we’ve played. The sky’s the limit. If we keep improving and learning from mistakes, we’re going to be real good. The sky’s the limit.”

Top-25 Tilt

After three mostly non-competitive wins against Idaho, Utah Valley and Southeastern Louisiana, the Utes face their first big test of the season when they welcome in the No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners.

Oklahoma comes to Salt Lake after defeating Utah 83-76 last season in Oklahoma. It was a loss in which a swarming Oklahoma defense forced 23 turnovers including 17 live ball steals.

“We had a 17 point lead going into the fourth quarter there last year and ended up losing,” Roberts remembered from last season. “That loss still really stings.”

Nine fourth quarter turnovers turned a 17-point advantage into a loss that, according to sophomore guard Kennady McQueen, helped the program grow together.

“That was a big game for us early on in preseason. I think we took that game, and it helped us throughout the rest of the season.”

The Sooners will be playing their second game in as many nights after facing the BYU Cougars on Tuesday.

Madi Williams (22 ppg) & Taylor Robertson lead a Sooner team that has averaged 101 points per game during their 2-0 start.

“She’s a pro (Williams). She’ll be in the WNBA,” Roberts said of Oklahoma’s fifth-year senior forward. “She’s just a matchup nightmare because she’s six foot tall, but athletic as a guard.”

For the Utes, a win would solidify everything the group has been working toward.

“It’s a chance to really challenge our team, to lock in on a game plan and scout,” Roberts said. “It’s just a chance to compete. We want to win, but it’s still about us getting better. I’m looking forward to it. We’ll be ready.”

Up Next

The Utes remain in Salt Lake City with the No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners scheduled for a non-conference battle on Wednesday, November 16. Tip-off for this game is scheduled for 7 p.m. (MDT). The game will also be aired on the Pac-12 Networks with Krista Blunk and Mary Murphey on the call.

 

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