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2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

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Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

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2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance originally appeared on NBCSports.com