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How No. 18 Utah shut down No. 7 USC and earned a historic road win

FILE — Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) drives the ball down the court at University of Utah’s Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 14, 2024. McQueen scored 14 points and added five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot in Utah’s win at No. 7 USC on Sunday.
FILE — Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) drives the ball down the court at University of Utah’s Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 14, 2024. McQueen scored 14 points and added five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot in Utah’s win at No. 7 USC on Sunday. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Utah picked an excellent time to earn its highest ranked road win in school history.

The No. 18 Utes beat No. 7 USC 74-68 at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, bouncing back after a humbling 30-point loss at No. 12 UCLA just three days prior.

It is Utah’s fourth win of a top 10 opponent this season, which leads the country.

Utes head coach Lynne Roberts used the word toughness to describe what she saw out of her team in the victory over the Trojans.

“We got our butts kicked on Thursday. We were embarrassed, we were ticked off and we hit some adversity tonight,” she said on the ESPN 700 postgame show.

“We found a way, we stuck together. ... I thought we did a great job. So stinking proud of my team.”

“We found a way, we stuck together. ... I thought we did a great job. So stinking proud of my team.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts

Utah set the tone on defense, making the Trojans and freshman phenom JuJu Watkins fight for every bucket in a game the Utes led for more than 35 minutes.

The result was a gritty victory that gave Utah (20-8, 10-6 Pac-12) a season sweep of USC (21-5, 11-5 Pac-12) and kept the Utes in position to potentially earn a top 4 seed in the upcoming Pac-12 tournament during the final week of the regular season.

Alissa Pili, who had a team-high 23 points for the Utes, scored their first seven points. Her jumper with 6:20 remaining in the first quarter gave the Utes a 4-2 lead and Utah never trailed again, though the Trojans twice tied the game in the third quarter.

Utah countered a 9-0 USC run in the third with an 8-0 run of its own to take back control, with Dasia Young scoring on a layup, followed by back-to-back 3-pointers from Kennady McQueen and Jenna Johnson, pushing the Utes back ahead by three possessions.

The Utes, who shot 48.9% from the field for the game, then hit 6 of 9 field goals — including a pair of timely 3-pointers — and 10 of 16 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter to fend off the Trojans.

Utah did that largely without starting point guard Ines Vieira, who battled foul trouble much of the game and fouled out with 6:57 remaining.

Jenna Johnson, who had a career-high nine assists, hit her second 3-pointer of the game with 7:46 remaining, giving Utah some breathing room after USC had cut its deficit to two.

The Utes’ final field goal of the night came four minutes later, when Pili drove into the lane and kicked out to Young for the 3-point bucket and a 64-57 Utah lead.

From there, Utah wrapped up the win at the free-throw line. For the game, the Utes made 17 of 25 from the charity stripe, including 12 of 14 from Pili.

Even with Vieira’s foul troubles, the Utes were efficient on offense, assisting on 21 of their 23 made field goals.

The Utes also hit 11 of 27 3-pointers, much better than USC’s 4 of 20 shooting from 3-point range.

Utah’s defense, though, was a catalyst in the victory.

While Watkins scored a game-high 30 points, she made only 10 of 30 field goals and went 9 of 12 from the free-throw line.

“JuJu had 30 but it took her 30 shots,” Roberts said, “and we talked about in fact, before the game, I said, ‘She can have 30, we just can’t let the others get going.’”

USC was held to 40.3% shooting, including 17.6% in the first quarter when Utah outscored the Trojans 14-6. The six first-quarter points was a season low for USC.

“That first quarter we were on the struggle bus offensively,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said, according to The Associated Press.

It was a true team effort for the Utes.

In addition to her 23 points, Pili had nine rebounds, a pair of steals and an assist in her first game inside the Galen Center since transferring from USC to Utah two years ago.

“It means a lot, especially my senior year coming out with the win,” Pili said, per the AP. “I think this game is kind of going to propel us forward for the remainder of the season.”

McQueen came up with several big plays on both ends of the court, finishing with 14 points (including a pair of 3-pointers), five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot.

Two others — Young and Maty Wilke — overcame foul trouble to add 13 and 11 points, respectively.

Wilke hit a team-high three 3-pointers, all in the second quarter.

“I thought Kennady played one of her best games … she was so good defensively, attacking,” Roberts said.

“Dasia came in, I mean what a week for Dasia. Those of us that know — fearless out there, rebounded, defended. Pili made her free throws. Just so stinking proud of our team.”

That sets Utah up with the chance to improve its seeding for the Pac-12 tournament in the regular season’s final week.

The Utes will host Washington State on Thursday (3 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) and Washington on Saturday (noon, Pac-12 Washington).

Utah is all alone in sixth place in the Pac-12 standings as of now, though the loser of Monday’s game between No. 11 Colorado and No. 12 UCLA will be tied with Utah at 10-6 in conference play.

There will also be three teams — USC, Oregon State and the UCLA-Colorado winner — just one game ahead with 11-5 conference records.

“We were sick and tired of short-selling ourselves when we know the type of team we can be,” Pili said.