Alissa Pili leads Utah in a variety of ways to first-round NCAA Tournament victory
The Gardner-Webb women’s basketball team expected to get a big dose of Utah’s Alissa Pili in its first-round NCAA Tournament game Friday evening in Salt Lake City.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs got that alright, but also so much more.
“I’m proud of our team. We controlled the game the whole time, but had some peaks and valleys of great play and loose play, but we scored 103 points and only had hit seven 3s.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts
Pili scored a career-high 33 points and led a spirited effort by several of her teammates as the Utes rolled to a 103-77 win in front of 7,190 boisterous fans at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Two weeks after Utah went missing in action in the Pac-12 tournament, the Utes had one of their most crisp offensive efforts against the Big South Conference champions, who came in with a school-record 29-4 record and a 21-game winning streak.
The Bulldogs couldn’t stop Pili, who was the Pac-12’s Player of the Year this season and a second-team All-American.
The 6-foot-2 junior made made 12 of 17 shots and 9 of 11 free throws, and seemed at her best whenever Utah needed a basket.
But what made Pili all the more valuable were her eight assists, part of an impressive group of players who combined for 32 assists on 37 baskets.
“That’s remarkable, and that’s a sign of an unselfish team,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts, whose team moved past the first round for the second straight season and has high hopes to go further after improving its record to 26-4.
“I’m proud of our team. We controlled the game the whole time, but had some peaks and valleys of great play and loose play, but we scored 103 points and only had hit seven 3s.”
Jenna Johnson also had a memorable night with 20 points and five assists, and Gianna Kneepkens added 17 points to help Utah advance to its second-round matchup Sunday at the Huntsman Center where they’ll face Princeton, who defeated North Carolina State in the late game Friday.
The second-seeded Utes will have to be considered the favorite simply based on their 15-0 record at home this year.
Roberts said the Utes weren’t looking past Gardner-Webb, the No. 15 seed that had only once reached the NCAAs — in 2011.
The senior-laden Runnin’ Bulldogs took an early lead, but the Utes quickly regained the spark that led to victories over six other NCAA tourney squads and an eventual Pac-12 regular-season co-championship before falling in the first round of the Pac-12 tourney in Las Vegas.
Pili and Johnson said they were happy to be back at home, and gave the crowd plenty of reasons to cheer with their passing accuracy that led to many easy shots.
A 14-0 run that stretched into the second period boosted the margin to 32-14. Pili and Johnson had a size advantage over their opponents for the first time in at least two months and used it to pass the ball to each other in the key for easy baskets.
“We have so many weapons offensively. If the defense takes away one, we can just have another one,” Johnson said. “So we were getting a lot of points down low early and then when they try to collapse on us, we can kick it out and hit 3s.”
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Said Gardner-Webb coach Alex Simmons: “Obviously, Utah is a team that once they get in the flow, it’s tough to stop them.”
Gardner-Webb was also hurt by foul trouble. Pili and Johnson were primarily responsible for getting Bulldog players sent to the bench — like leading scorer Jhessyka Williams, who finished her career Friday as the school’s second-leading scorer.
Williams entered the game averaging 19 points per contest. She finished with 20 on Friday, most coming when the Bulldogs cut the Utes’ margin to 58-50 with 5:24 left in the third quarter.
Roberts said she was upset but not nervous, and her group all laughed together as it relived the coach’s strenuous reaction to their occasional carelessness during the ensuing timeout.
“Whenever we’re not playing to our potential, (Roberts) lets us know,” Pili said. “We respond well to her just getting at us, and it’s tournament time, so everything matters that we do on the court.”
Not surprisingly, Pili took a pass from Kneepkens and scored on a layup on the Utes’ next possession.
Then Kneepkens found the hoop (on a pass from Pili) and Kennady McQueen got free for an open 3-pointer as Utah quickly stretched the margin to 15 points.
The fourth quarter got out of hand for the visitors as Utah gained the momentum and Gardner-Webb started to realize the rare feeling of what it’s like to lose a game.
The Utes broke the 100-point barrier for the fifth time this season on a late trey by Kelsey Rees, who has had to live in Pili’s shadow after starting most of last year.