Bitter finish ends Utah’s dream season as LSU ekes out a Sweet 16 win over Utes
University of Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts said she would have accepted the scenario with 4.7 seconds remaining in a heartbeat.
The No. 2-seeded Utes were down one and sophomore Jenna Johnson — a 75% free-throw shooter — was at the free-throw line in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against No. 3 seed, but favored, LSU in Greenville, South Carolina.
“I think it is going to take a little bit of time (to process the loss). We wanted this one badly. We wanted to win this (Greenville 2) regional, one (game) at a time.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts.
“If you said Jenna Johnson on the line to win this game, would you take it?” Roberts said. “Heck yeah, and I would take it tomorrow.”
But on this Friday afternoon with a chance to go to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2006, it wasn’t meant to be for the Utes, and they will finish their dream season with a 27-5 record.
Johnson missed both free throws — the first one not coming remotely close to going in — and LSU held on to take a 66-63 win in a wild, physical and emotional thriller sure to add more craziness to March Madness.
“I think it is going to take a little bit of time (to process the loss),” Roberts said. “We wanted this one badly. We wanted to win this (Greenville 2) regional, one (game) at a time.”
Instead, LSU (31-2) marches into Sunday’s regional final against No. 9 seed Miami and Utah returns to Salt Lake City wondering what might have been.
What if Johnson had made at least one of the two free throws?
What if Pac-12 Player of the Year and National Player of the Year candidate Alissa Pili had played an average game, instead of one of her worst this season?
What if they hadn’t given up an offensive rebound to LSU’s Alexis Morris with a 63-62 lead with 13 seconds left?
After Angel Reese missed a layup, Morris gathered the ball and was fouled by Pili — her disqualifying fifth — and eventually sank both free throws to give the Tigers a 64-63 lead.
After a timeout, Gianna Kneepkens drove and had her shot blocked, but Johnson grabbed it and was fouled while shooting.
“It is hard,” said Roberts, who was captured by ESPN cameras hugging and consoling Johnson in the final moments. “Those are pressure moments and it is a growing experience for her. She’s just a sophomore. But I don’t think that will happen again, if she gets that opportunity again, knowing her and the competitor she is.”
After Morris made two more free throws, Utah had a chance to tie with two seconds left, but Dasia Young’s desperation 3-pointer hit the top of the backboards and that was that.
That the Utes would have a chance to win seemed unlikely with 3:45 left when Morris hit a 3-pointer to give LSU a 60-52 advantage.
But Gianna Gneepkens, who led the Utes with 20 points, scored nine straight points to bring Utah back. And when Issy Palmer (15 points) made two free throws with 1:09 left, Utah led 63-61.
“They made the last play,” Roberts said. “We had a defensive stop and just didn’t secure the board. Morris came up with it, and then we got that foul and were playing catch-up from there.”
Utes taking ‘underdog mentality’ into Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown with LSU
The Utes stayed in it by making 8 of 22 3-point attempts (36%) and holding the Tigers to three 3-pointers. But 16 turnovers doomed the Utes, along with giving up 12 offensive rebounds that LSU turned into 13 second-chance points.
“I don’t really think it comes down to those plays at the end. I think it is just the buildup throughout the whole game. There are a lot of things we could have done better in the first, second and third quarters,” said Pili, who was held to 14 points and five rebounds. “Yeah, I just think throughout the whole game is when it matters.”
Angel Reese, LSU’s best player, was held to 17 points. But she grabbed 12 rebounds before also fouling out.
Utah’s biggest nemesis on this night was LaDazhia Williams, who had a career-high 24 points on 11 of 14 shooting. Morris added 15.
“It was really physical. I think you kinda have to pick your poison. I thought we let (Williams) get into a little bit of a rhythm there in the third (quarter),” Roberts said. “We weren’t going to go one-on-one with Angel down in the block. So we were kinda digging in and shrinking it a little bit. And I thought she got into a little bit of a rhythm there.”
The Utes led at halftime and the end of the third quarter thanks to five straight points by Palmer, but their undoing was the start of the fourth, when LSU went on a 14-5 run to grab the eight-point lead.
“What a great game. I thought both teams left it all out there on the floor. That’s why it stings so bad when you put it all out there and somebody’s got to win,” Roberts said.
That wasn’t the Utes, who have been so good in close games throughout the season.
But if it happens the same way again, Roberts likes her chances.