Utah faces another postseason-rich team, South Dakota State, in the NCAA Tournament’s first round

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) moves the ball during a game against the Oregon Ducks at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023.
Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) moves the ball during a game against the Oregon Ducks at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Utah will be favored in its first-round women’s NCAA Tournament matchup when the No. 5 seed Utes take on No. 12 seed South Dakota State late Saturday night.

That will be the nightcap in the Spokane, Washington, subregional — No. 4 seed and host Gonzaga will take on No. 13 seed UC Irvine in the day’s first game at the McCarthy Athletic Center before Utah and South Dakota State meet in the arena’s second contest of the day (8 p.m. MDT, ESPNU).

Three of the schools — Utah, South Dakota State and Gonzaga — all have extensive postseason experience in recent seasons, while UC Irvine is making its first NCAA appearance in 29 years.

What that all means for the Utes will be determined in the next few days.

Utah (22-10) went 3-2 in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons, reaching the Round of 32 two years ago and the Sweet Sixteen last season.

Even after losing their second- and third-leading scorers — Gianna Kneepkens and Issy Palmer, respectively — to injuries for much of this season, the Utes have shown they are capable of beating almost anyone with a team led by All-American forward Alissa Pili and a veteran group that includes Jenna Johnson, Kennady McQueen, Ines Vieira and Dasia Young.

Postseason experiences over the past two seasons, as well as experiences competing in the Pac-12 Conference, where each game can feel like an NCAA Tournament tilt, are expected to have the Utes seasoned for another run.

Utah went into this season with the goal to surpass its Sweet Sixteen achievement from last season, and that goal hasn’t changed.

Not under confident Utah coach Lynne Roberts, who’s applauded her team’s toughness time and again through the ups and downs of this season.

“We’ve beaten four Top-10 teams. We’ve been in the top 20 all season, and to be a 5-seed, that speaks to our conference,” Roberts told reporters Friday.

Finishing in the top half of a league as difficult as the Pac-12, and beating teams like No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 1 seed USC (the Utes swept the Trojans this year), has Utah believing it’s ready for whatever the NCAAs can throw at it.

“I think just knowing what conference we come from, and night-in, night-out, what teams we played against, the level of competition, that prepares you all season long for March Madness,” McQueen said.

“We are very blessed and thankful to be in a conference like that where you can get beat by the 12th team in the conference just as much as you can be built by the No. 1. Yeah, I think it sets us up for success coming March Madness and just taking those little lessons for the Pac-12 and applying them starting tomorrow.”

The Jackrabbits (27-5) will provide a unique challenge on Saturday.

South Dakota State, which plays in the Summit League, is making its 12th NCAA Tournament in the past 16 seasons under longtime head coach Aaron Johnston.

The Jackrabbits beat USC in the opening round of the NCAAs last year, and back in 2019, South Dakota State made a run to the Sweet Sixteen.

The common denominator? Johnston, who’s been at South Dakota State since 1999.

“He does an amazing job and always has. He has his team so prepared,” Roberts said of Johnston. “What I really respect about them in preparing for them is I always think a team that knows who they are, are hard to beat.

“They definitely know who they are, what they are good at, what they are not, what they stay away from, what they, you know, hone in on. They have got a couple players that could play for any team in the country.”

The star matchup in Saturday’s contest will be Pili, who leads the Utes by averaging 20.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, against South Dakota State forward Brooklyn Meyer, who averages 17.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

Both players shoot above 54% from the field and can stretch a defense with their versatility.

“I’m looking forward to it. She’s obviously a really good player,” said Meyer, the Summit League Player of the Year. “I feel like it will be a good challenge for me defensively to try to do everything that I can. Yeah, I have a lot of respect for her. Obviously we’re going to just give our best effort.”

South Dakota State comes into Saturday’s game on a 21-game winning streak, having gone unbeaten in Summit League play.

Like Utah, South Dakota State has dealt with its share of injuries this year, and that contributed to the Jackrabbits getting off to a slow start before gelling better as the season has wore on.

“We are a very different team. But you also have to assume at this point in the year other teams are different, too. As we get ready for Utah, they’ve grown, and they’ve gotten better as their year’s gone on. They’ve got a couple of the best players in the country at their position we have to go up against,” Johnson said.

“I have no doubt we’re playing our best basketball, but whoever we play as we go forward, starting with Utah, is going to be playing their best basketball. There will be big challenges.”

“We know what we can accomplish and our potential. ... I think we’ll just take this, and like you said, I think people are still sleeping on us and we’re being overlooked but now is the time to kind of wake everybody up.”

Utah forward Alissa Pili

Roberts offered a similar sentiment, noting that the Utes needing to be the best versions of themselves come Saturday.

“When we are the best us, we are getting out in transition, we’re shooting without fear. We’re defending like a connected energy,” Roberts said. “So for me, our team is very prepared for South Dakota State but we’ve got to be the best version of us. That’s the honest truth. So I think that’s — and I’m sure they are going to try to be the best version of themselves, too. So I anticipate a very competitive game.”

The winner will face either Gonzaga, which is making its seventh straight NCAA appearance, or UC Irvine in Monday’s second round.

Last year, Utah earned a No. 2 seed and hosted during the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Utes held out hope to host again — that was evident during Sunday’s selection show, as each No. 4 seed was announced, the team let out a collective sigh — but instead find themselves on the road to start NCAA play.

Roberts said there’s no chip on their shoulder for coming up short of hosting again.

No, the focus is on the games and playing well in whatever environment her team finds itself in.

“Chip on our shoulder not really. I think you can’t control what you can’t control, and we don’t focus on things that I can’t control,” Roberts said. “I certainly wasn’t in the selection committee room. We’ll play anyone, anywhere, any time. If it’s here, great. Let’s go.”

Pili, the face of the Utes since transferring from USC before last season, admitted the team wasn’t “super happy” with its No. 5 seed and losing out on the chance to play at home in Salt Lake City, but is also grateful for the opportunity of playing in a second straight NCAA Tournament with the Utes after never making it there at USC.

“We know what we can accomplish and our potential,” Pili said. “... I think we’ll just take this, and like you said, I think people are still sleeping on us and we’re being overlooked but now is the time to kind of wake everybody up.”

Aaron Johnston
South Dakota State head coach Aaron Johnston directs his team against South Carolina during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Columbia, S.C., Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. | Nell Redmond