Nov. 19—The University of Alaska Anchorage women's basketball team saw a record-setting crowd for its game at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday night for the first day of the 2023 Great Alaska Shootout.
However, of the 3,711 attendees, a large contingent was there not necessarily to root for the Seawolves, but rather to cheer on Anchorage's Alissa Pili.
Pili, a Dimond High grad and All-American from the University of Utah, led the Utes to a 101-57 win over the Seawolves.
"It was awesome," UAA head coach Ryan McCarthy said. "We haven't seen this big of a crowd since we hosted the West Regional, and that was about eight years ago, so I'm really pleased with how the Shootout went. It was great and Utah had a good showing tonight as well."
What is usually a sea of green and gold when UAA takes its homecourt was littered and in some places completely overtaken by waves of red and white.
"It's always a blessing," Pili said. "A lot of my family from Alaska came out to see me play, so coming home and everybody coming to support means a lot."
The supporters, with many hoisting "Pili Power" signs, took over several sections of the lower bowl in the arena, especially the one directly behind the Utes' bench.
"Coming in here, I told my teammates that this place is going to be packed and UAA is going to have a home advantage, but there's going to be a lot of fans cheering for us too," Pili said. "That energy helps us and all the support helps."
While it's rare for the home team to feel like they're playing at a neutral site, it made McCarthy feel nostalgic.
"It's like the old days when Duke would show up," he said. "They'd always have these random Duke fans all of a sudden, or Syracuse or UMass. I'm hoping we can get it back to that. This is a step in the right direction for sure, and a huge shoutout to our sponsors AARC and ConocoPhillips because this wouldn't be possible without them."
Pili admitted that playing against her hometown team, which she'd watched and supported growing up, felt strange.
"It was kind of weird, to be honest, but it's a cool experience and I'm glad we came up here to do that," Pili said.
The Utes, ranked No. 4 in the nation in NCAA Division I, weren't really fazed by playing in front of a huge crowd.
"We're used to a bunch of fans and a loud atmosphere, so it wasn't too different," Pili said. "But just being in my hometown, it was real special for me."
The last time she played on the Alaska Airlines Center's court, she had led Dimond High to its second straight girls state basketball title. To return to the arena for the first time in four years and emerge victorious yet again is a memory she'll cherish for a lifetime.
"Like I've been saying, this is a full-circle moment coming back here where I used to compete for state titles," Pili said. "It's a surreal moment, I think, and to do it in front of all my family and friends is a blessing."
Even though she still has a whole season ahead of her and a national title to chase, Pili believes that coming home to play one last time is already the "highlight of my year."
"I know coach McCarthy from way back, so him providing us with this opportunity is a cool thing," she said.
The Shootout is in its second year after returning from a hiatus. McCarthy hopes fan passion for the tournament will continue to parallel a rising interest in women's basketball nationally.
"I'm really glad that we've grown this tournament because it's bigger than our loss," McCarthy said. "It's grown the sport of women's basketball, and it's what I ultimately wanted. I want more teams like Utah to come to this tournament."
As for the game itself, Pili was one of four Utes to reach double figures in scoring as she finished third with 18 points in 24 minutes that included going 6-of-9 on field goals and 5-of-6 on free throws.
"(During) these games, we kind of just focus on us and the little things we have to do to get better," she said. "I know there were a bunch of people here for me and to support me, but that doesn't change how I approach the game. It doesn't change anything I do on the court."
The Seawolves tried to put an emphasis on limiting her impact in the post, which opened up a lot of shots on the perimeter that her teammates took full advantage of. The Utes shot 63.1% from the field and 45.3% from 3-point range alone, going 11-of-24 on long balls as a team.
"I kicked it to my teammates and they'll knock the shots down," said Pili, who sank a 3-pointer herself and dished four assists.
The Utes suffered their first loss of the season Tuesday on the road 84-77 to fellow Division I competitor Baylor, and Pili couldn't have picked a better way or place for her team to rebound.
"We took a tough loss, and I think this game and the next are our bounce-back games to fix the areas we need to improve," she said.
UAA competed with Utah early in the game and only trailed by a single-digit margin for a stretch in the first quarter.
"Credit to Utah because they're elite," McCarthy said. "This is apples and oranges from an athletic standpoint, but I thought that our ladies did a pretty good job executing what we wanted to in the first seven or eight minutes of the game.
He admits that his team probably "got a little gassed" because they were so excited for the opportunity to play an upper-echelon Division I program.
"I thought we had a much better second half just from an effort standpoint," McCarthy said. "I think sometimes when you play someone who is at that caliber, they can take you out of what you want to do and take you out of what your focus has been all week long."
He believes that Pili is a "great ambassador for women's basketball and the state of Alaska" and appreciates the respect she's always had for her hometown program.
"She grew up coming to our camps and I remember working with her at an elite camp here," McCarthy said. "I'm super happy for her and super happy that everyone showed out to give her some love because she deserves it."
In the first game of the 2023 Great Alaska Shootout on Saturday, Eastern Kentucky University beat the University of Alabama-Birmingham 68-64 in a much more competitive matchup. The Colonels were led in scoring by graduate student guard Antwainette Walker's 20 points while the Blazers were led by redshirt sophomore guard Mia Moore with a game-high 21 points.
All four teams will be back in action on Sunday for the second and final day of the tournament, with UAA and UAB facing off in the third-place game at 5:15 p.m. while Utah will play Eastern Kentucky at 7:30 p.m.