Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) drives and shoots against Colorado Buffaloes center Aaronette Vonleh (21) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
A year ago Utah’s women’s basketball team dropped its Pac-12 opener, and proceeded to then lose four of its first five conference games as it played catch-up the rest of the season on its way to a sixth-place regular season finish.
Postseason success in the Pac-12 tournament and NCAA tournament, combined with landing a marquee transfer in the offseason, had the Utes excited about a much stronger start to the 2022-23 season, and that’s exactly how things have played out.
Fresh off of vaulting this week into its highest national ranking since 2008, the undefeated No. 13 Utes dominated Colorado in the Pac-12 opener at the Huntsman Center on Wednesday afternoon with the 85-58 rout.
“Anytime you can win in the Pac-12 it’s a good day in this conference. A lot of respect for Colorado, they play hard, they run their stuff and they’re well coached,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts. “I thought our defense on the perimeter was very, very good. They’re top 15 team in the country in 3-point percentage. We held them to 3 for 14.”
Two of those 3-pointers came in the first quarter as Utah led just 19-17 after the first 10 minutes. A year ago in Utah’s home loss to Colorado it lacked the necessary intensity and Roberts talked a lot about that with her team ahead of the game.
She was a little worried about another sluggish start and how her players maybe weren’t Pac-12 intense from the opening tip, but it didn’t last long.
Utah outscored Colorado 25-11 in the second quarter to grab a 44-28 halftime lead, and then it pulled away with an emphatic fourth quarter scoring edge, 22-8.
Utah improved to 9-0 with the win, with eight of those wins coming comfortably by double digits. The Utes’ 33.1 margin of victory ranks third in the NCAA, while its 53.2 team field goal percentage ranks first.
Ute sophomore Gianna Kneepkens, who scored 17 points, believes last year’s postseason tournament success has carried over to the strong start this season.
“Knowing what it takes to get there is a big thing, and knowing that we all have to buy into that. We have expectations and we want to get back and do better than we did last year,” said Kneepkens.
Utah will dive back into its nonconference slate of games over the next two weeks with games against UC Riverside, Weber State and Southern Utah. After that the Pac-12 gauntlet begins on Dec. 30 at Washington State.
Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in this week’s AP top 25 rankings (No. 2 Stanford, No. 10 UCLA, No. 13 Utah, No. 16 Oregon and No. 20 Arizona).
Roberts doesn’t believe that her team’s lofty national ranking added any pressure to Wednesday’s conference opener, and isn’t worried about it going forward either.
“If they’re playing as hard as they can and they’re engaged and locked, then I like our chances against anybody,” said Roberts.
Alissa Pili, the notable USC transfer, led the Utes in scoring for the fifth time this season with 25 points. Pili spent three seasons with USC and she’s immediately raised the overall level of play for Utah during its 9-0 start.
Pili increased her season scoring average to 21.3 ppg on Wednesday with her fourth straight game eclipsing 20 points. She made 10 of 14 shots, raising her season field-goal percentage to 70.0% which ranks third in the entire country.
Her ability to score inside and out has been a massive addition for the program.
“Everybody knows how good Gianna is and how good Kennady (McQueen) is and Jenna (Johnson) in terms of how they shoot the ball on the floor, so everybody is kind of keying on them, and it’s opening up the key and it’s nice to have somebody who is pretty automatic,” said Roberts. “If it’s one on one it’s pretty automatic. And if they want to double she’s a great passer. I think it’s taken some of the pressure off of our shooting.”
Pili wasn’t surprised by Colorado’s intensity to open the game, after all this was the fourth Pac-12 season-opening game of her career and they’re always intense.
“I’ve played three years in the Pac-12 and you get kind of familiar with the teams, I knew how the first game of Pac-12 goes, it’s always tough for some reason,” said Pili.
Pili got hot in the second quarter scoring nine points and grabbing four rebounds as Utah made sure there was no repeat home loss to Colorado as it enjoyed a perfect start to Pac-12 play.