March Madness: Alissa Pili, Utah's high-scoring offense make statement in NCAA tournament 1st round

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts was frustrated. Her No. 2 seed Utes were letting No. 15 Gardner-Webb back into the game, which was now an eight-point margin late in the third, with turnovers and passes out of bounds.

“We were, just in a word, casual,” Roberts said.

Their answer to their coach’s animated huddle was anything but and the Utes turned up the dial to advance, 103-77, in an offensive showcase that bettered any other team of the day.

No. 1 overall seed South Carolina came into the day as a 50.5-point favorite over Norfolk State. Credit the Spartan defense for keeping out of the record books. No. 2 Iowa, the nation’s best offense, came close with 95 points after sitting its starters most of the fourth. No. 2 seed Maryland looked like a windup toy, sprinting out for 93 early in the day and No. 1 seed Stanford closed at 92 later.

Most probably weren’t considering Utah (26-4) for the honor, even though the Utes rank third in scoring offense (84.1 ppg) and fourth in field-goal percentage (48.9%). Not before games tipped on Friday and not when a 49-34 halftime lead dwindled into a slim eight-point one, 58-50, on a 3-pointer by Ki’Ari Cain at 5:29 of the third. The points came off a Jhessyka Williams steal.

“We're lucky that we were able to win and still make those mistakes,” Roberts said. “But moving forward, that's not going to be the case. My mindset was just to try to get their attention, splash some water on their face. Figuratively; I did not do that. And just to get them to focus.”

Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson, who had 20 points (10 of 14), four rebounds, five assists and two steals, said it was about refocusing and intensifying.

“Obviously in March, we’re only guaranteed that 40 minutes each game, so there’s no time to goof around and think we’re going to win it,” Johnson said.

Utah forward Alissa Pili maneuvers around Gardner-Webb forward Alasia Smith the first round of the NCAA women's tournament on March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Alissa Pili, who ranks top 10 in points, provided one-third of their points with a career-high 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 27 minutes. Once the game was put away, Roberts opted to sit and rest her star versus risking potential injury in chasing a triple-double. The 6-foot-2 junior transfer forward is a finalist for the Wooden and Naismith Awards and was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year after transferring from USC.

Gardner-Webb couldn’t limit the Utes’ overall size, led by Pili and Johnson. Utah was 37-of-63 shooting and only seven of those makes were 3-pointers (7 of 16), providing a mere one-fifth of their 103 points. They were 22 of 28 from the free-throw line, nearing a season-high in free-throw attempts.

“I’ve been on that side of it where you watch film and you go, ‘OK, we’ve got this, you know what you’re going to do,’” Roberts said of Gardner-Webb’s struggles with their size. “And then you get out there and it’s not as — everything is easier on film. It’s that Mike Tyson quote of, ‘Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ It's such a luxury to have a player like [Pili].”

Utah’s total was a call to action in response to Roberts’ huddle, and a statement from Salt Lake City to a group of the country that called out the Utes as frauds despite their share of the Pac-12 regular season title. Many questioned their resume when the women’s selection committee gave them the No. 1 seed in the second reveal. And there are questions about how good the Pac-12 really is, top to bottom.

For Friday at least, Utah showed it can answer the call in March, a month that requires constant focus. They’re guaranteed at least 40 more minutes against No. 10 Princeton on Sunday and casual won’t cut it.