Tight Defense and Fearless Freshwomen Deliver Utah to the Second Round of the Pac-12 Tournament


University of Utah’s Women’s basketball team plays against USC Trojans at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on Feb 9th, 2022. (Photo by Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Eric Jensen, Sports Writer


Kennady McQueen’s set of free throws gives the University of Utah women’s basketball team a 66-60 win over the Cal Golden Bears in round one of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament.

The win sets up a matchup with two seeded Washington State Thursday night at 9:30 in Las Vegas. Utah emerges into the second round after a gritty defensive win against Cal. In a game that saw the Utes shoot only 6-18 from three-point range, defense carried the day for the Utes.

It’s hard to quantify the effort the Utes played with defensively with statistics. They out-rebounded Cal 33-29 but this was much more than that.

At the beginning of the regular season, head coach Lynne Roberts told reporters that the number one goal of the offseason was to create a team that could defend better on the perimeter. It is safe to say Roberts accomplished that goal.

The Utes allowed only nine three-point attempts from Cal and the Golden Bears only hit two of those shots. The defensive performance made by the Utes was gritty, tenacious and brutal for a Cal offense that, for the most part, never found answers to the questions on the test.

The Utes’ freshwomen once again carried the day. Gianna Kneepkens had 20 points and Jenna Johnson put up 18, Roberts was effusive in her praise in the television post-game.

“They’re both fearless and tremendously talented, when you combine those two things, that’s dangerous. They’re going to have great careers here,” said Roberts.

The Utes limited turnovers committing only 11 on the night, two less than the season average. This was not the Utes best offensive game of basketball but they played a clean game and found a way to score just enough in the winning effort.

This is now the second time in three years the Utes have reached the quarter-finals of the Pac-12 tournament. This win puts them squarely in the conversation for being a first four team in to March Madness. If the Utes can steal a win against the second-seeded Washington State Cougars tomorrow, it will almost certainly lead to Lynne Roberts’ first tournament berth in her career with the program.

To do so, the scoring will need to improve, but if the defense remains at this level, the sky is the limit in a knockout tournament.

First Half

The Utes go to half up 31-25 in a defensive battle. Both teams played hard, grinding, tough defense in the first half, with Utah holding Cal’s leading scorer Jayda Curry to only eight points.

Utah also cleaned up on the boards, leading the Golden Bears 17-14 in that category. Peyton McFarland leads the way with four rebounds in the first half. This was an unsurprising stat as McFarland has led the Utes in rebounding for most of the year.

The shots were not falling from three for the Utes, as they have been most of the year, against Cal. Utah shot only 2-9 from deep in the first half of play. Roberts commented about the shooting on the TV broadcast at the half.

“We need to keep taking good shots,” she said.

The nine shots Utah took in the first half were mainly quality looks as the team had good ball movement in the first half.

The Utes also limited turnovers sticking at six in the first half. The average on the year for the Utes has been about 13 turnovers per game so six in the first half was not overly concerning. However, in tight defensive games, turnovers and points off turnovers always mean more.

Cal scored only five points off turnovers in the first half. Utah scored 10 points off turnovers and forced 11 turnovers in the first half.

Jenna Johnson again led all Utah scorers with 11 points in the first half. The second-leading scorer was McQueen with six.

Second Half

The Utes enter the fourth quarter down 45-44 after committing two costly turnovers.

Their three-point game in the third failed to improve as well, shooting just 2-5 from behind the line.

The game got increasingly more physical in the third quarter, yet both teams were being left alone for the most part by officiating.

The tenor of the game completely shifted into a defensive boxing match of sorts, each team laying out hit after hit on one another just trying to wear the other down.

Utah had two blocks in the third but was outrebounded 8-5 by Cal.

Kneepkens took over scoring in the third as she posted an impressive 10 points in the third quarter alone.

In the fourth quarter, Johnson took over the game, scoring six consecutive points in the fourth to give Utah a six-point lead.

Cal battled back to bring the game within reach, 62-60, with Curry hitting multiple free throws to keep the Golden Bears in it.

Kneepkens pulled off a nasty dribble move to make it a 64-60 game, and McQueen’s free throws wrapped it up for the Utes.

Utah will take on second-seeded Washington State at 9:30 p.m. MST, Thursday night in Las Vegas.


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