Utah Women’s Basketball Keeps NCAA Dreams Alive in Close Call Against Princeton


Xiangyao Tang

University of Utah women’s basketball forward Alissa Pili (35) in the game versus the Princeton Tigers at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Photo by Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Abbey Thomas, Assistant Sports Editor


On Sunday night, the Utah Women’s Basketball team hosted the second round of NCAA tournament play. The first round, played in the Huntsman two days prior, saw the Utes knock out No. 15 Gardner Webb to advance to Sunday’s game against the No. 10 Princeton Tigers. This year’s tournament placed Utah in its highest seed ever at No. 2, besting the team’s previous record of No. 5 from the 2005-06 season. However, the team’s intimidating rank was only one of a long list of accolades and records made this season. And to add one more to the list, Sunday night’s game closed the door to make Utah undefeated at home this season at 15-0.

Right from the start, Princeton made it clear they were there not only to win, but to also claim a coveted spot in the Sweet 16. When Princeton landed a jumper to claim their first two points, Alissa Pili charged back down the court and broke through a wall of three Tigers, hitting the floor but snagging a hard-fought layup. This exchange proved to be an omen for how the rest of the game would go, though in the first quarter the Utes came out on top with 20-12.

The second quarter would see the Utes reach their biggest lead of the game, after Pili got to the line to make it 27-14. Unfortunately, this would be the end of the Utes staying more than 10 points ahead of the Tigers — sensing they were falling behind, Princeton continued to get more aggressive and made a series of 3-pointers while offering the Utes limited chances to score themselves. Gianna Kneepkens and Pili closed out the second quarter with one and two free throws, respectively, holding Utah in the lead at 32-26.

Visibly shaken up heading into halftime, the Utes took a breather and sought to regroup before returning to battle. In a post-game press conference, head coach Lynne Roberts relayed the advice she gave to the group. “I said it in every time-out: They are not going to go away,” she said. “They are not going to quit. But it’s easy from the sidelines to say, don’t do that. It’s hard in there. They made everything hard.”

And relatively as expected, the second half was anything but simple — turnovers were off the charts and fouls went for a dime a dozen. Sophomore Jenna Johnson claimed six points in the third quarter, earning two sets of free throws and delivering two layups of her own. Princeton continued to play catch up and snuck within two points of the Utes with a minute to go. Utah pulled ahead ever so slightly and ended the third quarter still holding on at the top, at a nail-biting 46-42.

Heading into a tense final quarter, both teams switched into overdrive to try and nab any points they could, missing many a shot in the process. Though, a few of them came through — Pili grabbed a quick three points with a set of free throws and a layup, followed by Kennady McQueen with a jumper. The rest of the quarter would be a match of free throws, with Utah taking 17 shots and making 11 and Princeton taking seven, landing three. The Utes ultimately landed on top, securing a 63-56 win and a spot in the Sweet 16.

After a rather tense night, Roberts voiced her thoughts on the matchup, as well as some of her frustrations: “I just thought we got a little sloppy,” she said. “The turnovers, I about lost my mind. I don’t know how many were just not smart decisions.”

“I want to congratulate Princeton,” Roberts said. “I’m very impressed with them. That was hard. They are tough and you can see why they are such a good program. They are just a great program, well-coached, disciplined, physical, fearless. We just couldn’t pull away.”

Pili, who scored 28 of the team’s 63 points and helped create a vast chunk of the night’s scoring opportunities, reflected on Utah’s journey after the game: “It means a lot just knowing that our hard work throughout the season is just paying off and we are being recognized as one of the best teams in the country now that we have made it this far,” she said. “But now, we just have to keep improving.”

The Utes continue their bid for a national title this weekend when they head to Greenville, South Carolina to face off against No. 3 LSU on March 24 at 3 p.m. MT.


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