The next destination on the Utah women’s basketball team’s trek through nonconference play will take Utes star forward Alissa Pili back home.
No. 4 Utah, which is coming off an 84-77 loss at No. 21 Baylor, will play this weekend in the Great Alaska Shootout in Pili’s hometown, Anchorage.
It will be the lone time that Pili, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, plays in her home state during her college career, which started with three seasons at USC before she transferred to Utah last year.
“There’s always a tournament up there, and when we got Alissa, (associate head coach) Gavin Peterson does our scheduling, and we immediately got on that to see if we could get up there,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “It was important, we do try to go to where our players are from and play.”
— Utah Women’s Basketball (@UTAHWBB) November 16, 2023
Pili is a legend in Alaska high school girls basketball.
She was a three-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year at Dimond High in Anchorage, was twice named the National Female Athlete of the Year by MaxPreps — Pili was just the second two-time recipient — and earned the “Pride of Alaska” award from the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
Pili’s 2,614 career points were a state record at the time — that mark was passed earlier this season by now-true freshman Washington guard Sayvia Sellers of Anchorage.
“I’m blessed to have coaches that will let me go home my senior year and play in front of my state, my family and everybody I grew up around.” — Alissa Pili
“I’m blessed to have coaches that will let me go home my senior year and play in front of my state, my family and everybody I grew up around,” Pili said. “Alaska is a really prideful place and I have so much support from the whole state, not just my family. To go and play in front of them, it’s super exciting. It’s going to be something to remember, for sure.”
Her athletic achievements in high school expanded far beyond basketball, though.
Pili, whose father had her play football against boys as a kid, also starred in volleyball and track (she competed in shot put and discus) and she won 13 state titles at Dimond High. She also participated in wrestling.
It’s little surprise, then, that Pili’s high school is honoring her on the trip.
“The other thing that’s cool is we’re going to do an assembly — her high school’s doing an assembly, so we’re going to go to that the day before the game,” Roberts said.
“She’s a big deal up there, she’s a pretty big deal here, too, but she’s an even bigger deal there. I’m excited for her, and I know the team’s going to enjoy being with her for that, so we’re excited. It’ll be a cool opportunity.”
Pili is off to a strong start to the season for Utah (2-1), which has high expectations after reaching the Sweet 16 last year. The Utes return all five starters from that squad, led by the 6-foot-2 Pili.
Through three games, she is averaging 22.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game, while shooting 82.8% from the floor.
Pili told her hometown newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, that she expects a big crowd and that it will include some family traveling from Utqiagvik, Alaska, some 720 miles away.
“We’re pretty stoked and it’s just crazy to have her home to play in front of her family in her hometown,” her father, Billy Pili, told the Daily News in September.
Utah will play host Alaska Anchorage in the Great Alaska Shootout on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. MST at the Alaska Airlines Center. The Utes will finish up the two-day tournament by playing either Eastern Kentucky or UAB on Sunday night at 9:30 p.m.
The last time Pili played at the Alaska Airlines Center, she scored 40 points and had 13 rebounds in leading Dimond High to victory in the 2019 Alaska Class 4A state title game, according to Alaska Sports Report.
Alaska Anchorage coach Ryan McCarthy, who’s in his 12th season leading the Seawolves program, explained how Pili’s impact continues to be felt in the state and in women’s basketball.
“Utah very well could have a good season after Alissa leaves but Anchorage is going to care a lot more while she is there,” McCarthy told the Daily News. “I know there is large local support for her and what she has done in her career and I think that it is just good for women’s basketball in general.”