Deep, versatile Utah fights its way into uncharted territory

Alissa Pili puts up a shot. Utah Athletics photo.

If there was any doubt left over Utah’s explosive rise to the top this season, it was erased once and for all this past Saturday, on their home floor, after their last regular-season game.

The Utes grabbed a share of the Pac-12 title with a tenacious victory over conference stalwart Stanford, marking their first conference title and just their second victory in program history over the Cardinal. The gutsy win showcased how the team has made their surprising rise to new heights.

Utah led Stanford from midway through a dominant 25-17 second quarter, but were challenged late in the game by a 10-2 Cardinal run that cut their lead to 1. Far from collapsing under pressure, sophomore Giana Kneepkens drained a three out of a timeout, and the defense forced their opponents into three consecutive turnovers in the final minute to seal the 84-78 win.

Yet, as Utah ascended to a No. 3 ranking for the first time in school history this week, there are still doubters. But coach Lynne Roberts accepts the reality of being underrated, and even welcomes it.

“I kind of love it because you have to have a chip on your shoulder,” she said.  “People still don’t think we’re legit.”

“It’s like OK, bring it on. And, you know, we have a whole roster and players and the staff that loves the lack of respect and just kind of the patting you on the head like, ‘Oh, you guys are pretty good, huh?’ And we’re like, ‘OK, sure.’”

Confidence, timely shooting, and sterling defense have driven a very young team – five sophomores and three juniors log double-digit minutes- to a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (The latest NCAA Tournament Reveal made the Utes a top seed, by far the best in their history).

Utah finished regular-season play 25-3, and 15-3 in the Pac-12. But until recently, they have received no respect. Not a single one of their games have been nationally televised, while the other projected No. 1 seeds participated in 19 national TV games. (South Carolina-10; Indiana-4; Stanford-5).

Two seasons ago the Utes won just five games, while last season they surged to 21 victories, making the NCAA tournament and losing in the second round. Significantly, only two current team members – Kelsey Rees and Peyton McFarland – experienced that forgettable losing season, but eight were part of last year’s surge. That winning ethos is driving this season’s talented team.

Lynne Roberts conducts a timeout. Utah Athletics photo.

Roberts, named Pac-12 coach of the year this week, has built a deep team in which nine players average double-digit minutes. Utah boasts the nation’s fourth-highest scoring average (84.4 ppg) and field goal percentage (48.9). Notably, that offensive power is spread throughout the team, with just three players averaging double figure scoring.

The team’s offensive success has much to do with sharing the ball, and protecting it to maximize possessions. The seven players with the most minutes each have more assists than turnovers. Four players have more than 70 assists for the season, and the team ranks sixth in the nation in total assists. Utah exemplifies the “good shot-better shot” philosophy to which most teams aspire, but only the best attain.

And they run. Not haphazardly, but at every reasonable opportunity.

“The only thing that would stop us from running is not getting stops defensively,” sophomore forward Jenna Johnson said. “We have big motors, and definitely the other team wears down before we do. And when they start wearing down, it makes me want to run harder.”

With three starters and four players shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc, the Utes spread the floor well. The team attempts 24 threes per game, and their passing prowess makes covering all those shooters difficult. Teams that try to guard the perimeter have to deal one-on-one with forward and Pac-12 player of the year Alissa Pili inside, a formidable task. (More on that later.)

A scrappy and opportunistic defense complements Utah’s efficient offense. They rotate and communicate well on defense, and put opponents in uncomfortable situations. Though the team’s 7.2 steals per game is not outstanding, they seem to save them for key moments, like two in the final minute against Stanford. Six players have more than 20 steals this season.

The face of the team, and its leader in both points (20.6 ppg) and rebounds (5.5 rpg), is Pili, who transferred in this year from USC. The 6-2 junior forward is 15th in the nation in field goal percentage (.599), and leads the Pac-12 in both scoring and percentage.

Pili was three time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, then Pac-12 freshman of the year for the Trojans. Injuries slowed her in her next two years, and she lost some of her enthusiasm for the game.

Seeking a change, she entered the transfer portal.

“I feel like my junior year at USC, I just kind of fell into some bad habits and got uncomfortable in that environment,” Pili said recently. “So I needed to just have a fresh start to reset my mindset and just go somewhere new where I was going to be pushed and supported by people around me.”

All seem to agree that her fit in Salt Lake City has been perfect.

“It’s a system where team basketball is a big thing and everybody shares the rock,” Pili said. “That’s just the best kind of program to be a part of.”

Roberts was thrilled to see Pili pop up in the portal.

“Alyssa is she will deny this, but I swear it’s true,” Roberts said. “I tried to call her in high school but she never returned my calls. She says, ‘I never got ‘em,’ but I think she did.”

“And so when she when her name popped up, we immediately just jumped on it and got in touch with her. She visited and I think she just felt like it was the right fit. And we told her my vision for how good I think she could be in our system. What she needed to do to be as good as she knew she could be. And it just worked out.”

Asked what Pili “needed to do,” Roberts was characteristically straightforward.

“She was not in great shape,” the coach said. “The last year or two, she seemed unmotivated.”

“And so the system that we play, the style we play, she needed to get in shape. And I told her, ‘you’re going to have to adapt to us. We’re not going to adapt to you.’ And we’ll give you every support you could possibly want, but it’s up to you.’”

Pili accepted the challenge.

“And to her credit, and her credit only, she did it,” Roberts said. “And she’s just has shown incredible commitment. She’s a competitor, and she didn’t like the trajectory she was headed on and she made the changes.”

Another aspect of Utah’s appeal to Pili was the geography near Salt Lake City, which reminded her of the mountains around Anchorage, where she grew up.

Her compact, solid frame could be said to reflect those same mountains – if those mountains had grace, fluidity, and quickness. Her strength inside is well-known in the Pac-12. How many mobile basketball stars are powerful enough to earn state high school championships in shot put (four of them) and discus (two)?

But despite her strength and size, Pili is not stuck in the paint. She is a true three-level scorer, with versatility. While unmovable and agile on the block, she can also drive to the hoop with a surprising first step. She only rarely shoots the three, but has hit 27 of her 59 attempts (.459). She also leads her team with 27 steals on the season.

Gianna Kneepkens drives the ball inside the paint. Utah Athletics photo.

Sophomore Gianna Kneepkens takes more than half of her shots from beyond the arc, and does so at a .416 clip, second in the conference. Last season’s Pac-12 freshman of the year is also holds Minnesota’s high school record for season scoring average (41.6 ppg). She has scored in double figures in 23 games this season, and is second on the team with 15.3 points per contest.

Her career-high 28 points on 5-9 threes was the offensive difference in the title-clinching win over the Cardinal, but she did not do it all from outside. Her drives got her to the free throw line six times, yielding nine points.

A big guard at 5-11, Kneepkens averages five rebounds per game, and grabbed 13 against Washington State in February. She is a pure scorer, and shoots over 50 percent on the season.

These two may be the most prominent Utes, but this is a team that shares nearly everything. Roberts trusts every member of her deep roster, and nearly all of them have had starring roles in one or more of Utah’s 25 victories.

Sophomore Kennady McQueen’s teammates admire her unflagging energy.

“She makes all of us better each day,” Kneepkens said. “Kennady uses her athleticism super well to get boards and just scrap on defense. You can watch her and take pointers from her.”

Roberts agrees.

“She just plays so hard and, you know, you can’t coach that,” she said. “And that’s a luxury I have with this team. I don’t have to coach effort ever. We’ve had dips in intensity, but not effort. And Kennady, I think, is the leader in that category.”

Nothing in the stat sheet calls out “Dasia Young.” But she has been a defensive stalwart in key games all year, coming off the bench to limit the opponent’s best player.

“I just love that kid,” Roberts said. “She’s kind of our Swiss-army-knife player, who will do whatever is needed.”

The 5-11 junior approached her coach in the third quarter of the Stanford game and said, “I want to *** guard Brink,” the 6-4 Cardinal center.

“The coach in me was like, ‘ah?’” Roberts said. “But then I thought, ‘you know what? If you have a kid that has that burn in her gut to do that, like let’s do it. And she was phenomenal. She gave up six inches, but gave her fits. And that kind of encompasses Dasia. I think she’s our X Factor.”

Despite giving up those five inches, Young made it hard for one of the nation’s best centers to get the ball. Brink was just 3-9 from the field, and Young was not responsible for any of Brink’s eight free throws.

The architect for all this success is, of course, Roberts. She has coached the Utes to winning seasons in six of her eight years at the helm. She has crafted this year’s deep team into the best, by far, in program history. She has done so by convincing her players to “trust the process,” without worrying about every tiny mess-up. Her players credit her with allowing them to “play free.”

“It’s a read and react sport,” Roberts explained. “The reason they feel free is because when we practice our plays are not ‘this play is for Option A and Option A only.’ This play might give us “A,” but it might also let you do something else that you see. So that’s one side, there’s freedom for them to make plays.”

Roberts is not hung up on perfection.

“The other side is, after games we don’t give them a box score of ‘you went six for nine.’ Let’s say in the game you went zero-for-nine but they were all nine great shots. It’s gonna say nine-for-nine. So they don’t worry about missing as long as they’re taking great shots. They’re not afraid of making mistakes,” she said.

Pili said she and her teammates appreciate the grace that the coaching staff extends.

“Coach is big on that, not worrying about these little things,” Pili said. “We’re just more focused on how we’re getting better and what we can do to get better.”

Lynne Roberts gives Alissa Pili a hug. Utah Athletics photo.

Pili has welcomed the personal touch of Roberts, as well.

“She really values the relationship part of knowing her players and kind of just giving us what we need to succeed,” Pili said in a recent interview. “And I think she just does such a great job with that for each and every one of us.”

After last season’s success, Roberts said “It’s time for us to pivot to being great.” That pivot has clearly happened, and Utah is poised to challenge seriously for a national championship. Were they to win the Pac-12 tournament, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament would be a given. But even a deep run could well see the Utes on that one-line.

Utah kicks off Pac-12 Tournament play tonight at 6 p.m., when they face Washington State in the quarterfinals.