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Home Stretch: Utah Men and Women’s Basketball End of Season Recap

In this episode, Kyle Garrison and Brooke Hale chat about the Utah men and women’s basketball teams, addressing what both teams did well this season and what fans can expect next season.
Mary Allen
(Design by Mary Allen | The Daily Utah Chronicle)


Brooke Hale: Hi and welcome back to the Home Stretch, The Daily Utah Chronicle sports podcast. My name is Brooke and I’ll be your host. Today Kyle will be joining us to give his thoughts on both the basketball teams this year, with the women’s team falling on Monday night to Gonzaga and the men’s team taking on VCU in the mid-NIT quarterfinals on Wednesday night. Let’s take a look back at the two seasons and discuss what went well, what could have gone better, some standout performers and what to expect for this year. Hi, Kyle, and welcome to the podcast.

Kyle Garrison: Hi Brooke. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be on.

Brooke Hale: Of course. So just to start us off, what kind of things did you see from both teams down the stretch this year? 

Kyle Garrison: Yeah. So when it came to the women’s team, as most of our listeners know, the last couple games on the regular season schedule were very brutal. You play UCLA twice, who ended up being a No. 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. You get USC who is a No. 1-seed, and Colorado, and then obviously Gonzaga in the round of 32. Just a brutal stretch in the last nine or 10 games right there. And amidst that stretch, there was a ton of scoring, [but] there wasn’t a ton of scoring distribution. Alissa Pili led the team in scoring seven of the last nine games and in rebounding six of the last nine. Obviously, she’s been the most dominant performer on the team all year, and every team that comes in is keying in on her and making sure that they try and just limit her impact that she has on the game. But obviously, we know Pili — she doesn’t really care. If you double-team her, she’s going to find a way to score whether it’s from in the paint, from 3-point range, from the free throw line — she can do it at all three levels. So it just, down the stretch, obviously, you know, you play a bunch of tough, tough teams, and we were able to actually get a couple of wins there. We beat UCLA and USC both at home, which was absolutely an incredible stretch, back-to-back games. But some of those games that we dropped later on in the season, like to Gonzaga and to UCLA in the final regular season game of the year, there wasn’t a lot of scoring distribution. It was mostly Pili kind of doing her thing. So I think that maybe next year, when Pili is gone, there’s going to be some better distribution of getting the ball to other people and allowing other people to kind of make plays, which I think is going to be really good for a team that’s going to be poised to make a big run in March. But other than that, I think they played really well down the stretch. Obviously they couldn’t get it done in the final game of the year against Gonzaga to head to the Sweet 16, but absolutely unbelievable season from the lady Utes. And I’m really excited to kind of see how they go forward with the program as they’ve had [in] the past two years really a lot of success. When it came to the men’s team, though, you know, we weren’t able to make the NCAA tournament. We fell to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, which inevitably did not give us an at-large bid, which really was definitely not something that Craig Smith and the rest of his staff wanted to see. We, you know, were poised to kind of make that No. 9, No. 8, No. 10-seed window a couple of weeks ago, but we dropped some games, you know, that we definitely thought we were going to win — especially like at Oregon State down the stretch was a really tough loss. And then you know, turning around two days later and playing at Oregon, which Oregon obviously went on a run in the Pac-12 tournament, we lost that game to the Ducks by one point down the stretch. So, there was just a lot of games that, you know, could have gone our way but didn’t go our way. But we’re making the most of it. We took our bid to the NIT tournament, and we have been playing really well. We beat UC Irvine the other night, and we looked really, really solid against them. And then we beat a really, really solid Iowa team. The Big 10 has some really tough opponents and Iowa was one of those teams that was kind of on the bubble of getting into the tournament, just like we were and you know, we showed that we can play with anybody in the country and we’re able to take down the hot guys. Obviously, our season is still going, which is awesome to see. We play VCU in the NIT quarterfinals, which is on Wednesday night, which is the day that we are recording this and that should be a really fun game. It’s cool to see Coach Craig Smith take those bids to the NIT tournament. I know there’s a lot of teams that don’t take those bids and they kind of move on to the offseason, but I think it’s really cool to see Coach take his senior leaders and allow them to kind of play out the rest of the season and try and win a championship. I know it’s not the championship that everyone is looking forward to and it’s so sought after, but it is still a championship nonetheless, and a lot of good experience for young guys and for the guys that are going to be returning next year.

Brooke Hale: Sweet. Thank you so much. Just to go off of, you talked a lot about Alissa. Who were some other standout players from both teams this year that you noticed?

Kyle Garrison: Yeah, so obviously, everybody knows Alissa Pili. She averaged 21.4 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game on 55% shooting, which is absolutely just phenomenal. She’s going to be gone next year, unfortunately, as she is graduating, but [one] of the other girls that will be back next year that played really well throughout the entirety of this season was Kennady McQueen. She was kind of that second option all year long. She averaged 10.7 points per game, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. So she can kind of do it all. She’s kind of a do-it-all wing player. She’s only in her junior year. So we get her again next year, which I’m sure that the staff is absolutely thrilled about. And then she’s going to be coming back. She’s going to kind of take that senior role that Pili had this year, and she’s going to kind of take it under her arm. I’m sure she’s going to do it in a different way, but nonetheless, it’s going to be effective, and I’m really excited to kind of see how she’s able to come in in that role and thrive as that leader.

One girl that stood out to me early on in the season was Gianna Kneepkens. She unfortunately was sidelined [due] to injury for the majority of the year, but she did start the first eight games and she was absolutely on fire. She couldn’t miss. I think she was shooting, correct me if I’m wrong, with [54]% from 3-pointer. She was averaging 17.8 points a game. Just absolutely lighting it up. I think she would have been a huge difference maker this year for the team if she were to be able to play. I think that we would have been contending for that Pac-12 title if she was able to go all year. But unfortunately, it’s part of the sport. Other girls had to step up, and that’s what some of the other girls were able to do. Jenna Johnson was able to step in. She played really, really well. She put up 8.9 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game at that forward spot. She looked really solid throughout the entire year. She is another girl that’s going to be coming back next year, and Inês Vieira, who we were able to actually interview a couple of weeks ago — she was really solid. She kind of plays that pass-first point guard role. She’s a great facilitator, great playmaker. She was averaging six assists per game, which is absolutely phenomenal, and then on top of that averaging 8.1 points per game. But like I said, she’s going to be back for another year as well with Jenna Johnson and she’s going to be a senior. So, there’s going to be a lot of leaders on the team, a lot of vocal leaders that have had experience and have seen the court and know what the Pac-12 — excuse me, actually we’ll be in the Big 12 next year — and they’re going to be able to kind of adapt to that Big 12 play, and I think that’s going to be a little bit easier conference too to be in, considering how loaded the Pac-12 side of college basketball is for women. But yeah, I’m really excited for what Jenna and Inês and Kennady were able to do, and I think Gianna is going to have a huge impact as well next year. And then when it comes to the men’s team, obviously, senior standout similar to Alissa Pili for the women’s team, but Branden Carlson. He put up 17 points per game, [6.6] rebounds per game, 1.6 blocks per game and he obviously was a senior leader. He was in his fifth year this year. He used his COVID year and came back and did a lot of really great things for this team and for this organization as a whole. I think that he has really left his mark as one of the best Utah basketball players of all time, and we can’t thank him enough for what he’s been able to do this year and what he’s been able to do in the past — just going to be really sad to see him go. Another player that stood out to me was Deivon Smith. He kind of got forced into that starting point guard role when Rollie Worster went down with an injury early on in the season, and he was able to absolutely tear it up. He had four triple-doubles, which he’s only 1 of 5 players to ever have four triple-doubles in a season in college basketball history. In the entire history of college basketball, which is absolutely unbelievable. Nobody’s done it since — I believe there was a BYU guy, I looked it up, who did it in [2015], and then before that was Jason Kidd, so there’s not a lot of people that have been able to come in and put up four triple-doubles in games of only 40 minutes as a 6-foot point guard. It’s unbelievable. I mean, his season averages were crazy, considering he didn’t even start the year starting for us. He was coming off the bench but he ended up averaging 12. 7 points [per game], 6.1 rebounds [per game], 6.9 assists [per game] and you know, he stepped into that role and did really, really well. I think that he has another year of eligibility so I really hope that he’s able to come back next year and provide that same spark for us at that guard position. Gabe Madsen, I think he had his best year, in my opinion, as a Ute putting up 13.6 points per game, shooting just over 38% from three, just being a really good complement to Deivon Smith as he loves to drive and kick, and Gabe’s a great spot-up shooter. Gabe played great all year, he actually had 31 points the other night against Iowa and he just is another guy, another senior leader, another guy who’s seen it all, who’s been around the program for a while now. He transferred in just like a lot of the guys that are on the roster did and it’s been really cool to see him progress as a defender and as a guard and as a passer. He’s just — his entire game has evolved, overall, in the past couple years. It’s really cool to see. And then another guy, Cole Bajema, another transfer. He shot 40% from three, he was our best 3-point shooter percentage-wise, he averaged just under nine points a game. He’s a transfer out of Washington; played really well in his role. Started every game this year, which was really huge for us, and he is also going to be graduating this year as he used his final year of eligibility. And then just under nine points a night — or excuse me, yeah. Just under nine points a night, Keba Keita. He played that six-man role perfectly. I know he was a little bit frustrated down the stretch, just with the minute distribution as we had Lawson Lovering and Branden Carlson, two 7-footers, kind of starting ahead of him. So he was able to, but he played his role really well. He averaged [8.3] points per game and [5.4] rebounds and over a block a game, and with [Branden Carlson] gone next year, I think Keba is going to have a really improved role and I’m excited to see what he’s able to do.

Brooke Hale: Great. With all those players you mentioned, it was so fun to watch them this year and see what their potential was and how they contributed to both the teams. What were some highlights from both teams this year? 

Kyle Garrison: I mentioned it earlier, but the women’s team knocking off USC and UCLA at home, back-to-back games. Middle of the season. The bulk of the season is where teams really come together and they were able to take down two of the best teams, not only in the Pac-12 but the entire country. USC and UCLA ended up being [the] No. 1 and No. 2 seats, respectively in the Pac-12 Women’s Tournament, and just being able go in and take down those two teams who have brought back senior leadership, who have some of the better players in the country, it just speaks volumes to the program, speaks volumes to what just our coaching staff preaches and what Alyssa Pili is able to do as a leader. By no means did we have the, you know, the better players on paper, but we played better as a team, especially in those two matchups. We looked absolutely phenomenal. Those were just two games that really set the tone going in to postseason play for us. Unfortunately, you know, we couldn’t take down Gonzaga, but you got to hang your hat on those two wins. It’s really hard to beat top ranked teams in women’s basketball. Those top ranked teams usually separate themselves. Like, for example, South Carolina, the women’s teams going into the tournament undefeated. They haven’t lost a single game the entire year, and USC, who is regarded as a similar team to South Carolina at that No. 1 seed, we were able to sweep them. We actually beat them on the road as well this year and that’s really hard to do. And I think that, you know, at the end of the year, you know, we didn’t get the goal we wanted. We wanted a national championship, but it’s really something that you know, you can hang your hat on if you are that Utah women’s team. I know Alissa Pili was not able to go out the way she wanted to. But she was able to beat her old team that she transferred from two times this year at USC on the road and at home and I think those are just two like tone-setting wins for that program, and I think that can only go up from there. And then for the men’s team: I think the highlight of the year for me was just watching them take down BYU early on in the season. BYU came into the game undefeated, ranked No. 14 in the country. They were on fire. They, you know, they have a great team, had a lot of shooters, a lot of guys that could get hot really quick, and we were able to kind of limit the impact that their guards had and it really forced their forwards to, you know, make plays on the offensive end. And it was really cool to see us just take down a team in front of a packed Huntsman crowd, especially our biggest rival who we are going to be playing next year in the Big 12 and competing with for a Big 12 championship. So it was cool to set that tone going into next season beating a team with the caliber that BYU has. A couple other ones: the road win at St. Mary’s early on in the season was huge as they ended up being a five-seed in the tournament and winning their conference tournament championship. And then some other resume-boosting wins, you know, we get wins versus Oregon at home, versus Colorado and Washington state who all made the NCAA tournament this year, and those are just massive wins for the program. Last year, we struggled to get in wins against those top tier teams in the Pac-12, the teams that made the tournament. And this year we were able to take them down and I think that’s another tone setter, similar to the women’s team. Taking down those top 2 teams is huge for the confidence of the program as a whole and the coaching staff for each team. So I was excited to see that, and I’m excited to see what each team is able to do next year. 

Brooke Hale: Absolutely. Yeah, there was huge road games wins and home wins this year and it was so exciting to watch. So on that, what is the outlook on both teams heading into the 2024 to 2025 season?

Kyle Garrison: Yeah. So the women’s team, obviously Alissa Pili is going to be gone and then Dasia Young is also going to be graduating as well, and you know, obviously those are really tough losses for the team. Both of them ran out of eligibility so they aren’t able to come back and use that COVID year. I think that they both used their COVID year this year. But you know what, it’s next man up. You know, Coach Roberts is an insanely good coach. She’s been unbelievable the past couple of years turning this program around and I expect nothing less next year. It’s going to be a next-man-up role. There’s Kennady McQueen, Jenna Johnson, Inês Vieira and then sophomore Matyson Wilke are going to have to step up big time. They’ve all got solid minutes this year. They saw a lot of action, and then you bring back Gianna Kneepkens. As long as she stays healthy and is able to come back from that injury, that women’s team is going to be just as good if not better than this past year. I also expect Coach Roberts to kind of dip into that transfer portal. That’s how she was able to get Alissa Pili on the team, was through the transfer portal, and I just, I think that it makes sense for her to kind of go and maybe pick up another senior leader or pick up some young pieces to help kind of mold this core together, and it’s really cool to see a lot of the girls in that junior class that are going to be seniors. They’ve played a lot of basketball together. They’ve been on the same team for three years now and I think that it’s going to be really cool to see them going into a different conference and play some different opponents, and in my opinion, I think it’s a little bit easier [a] conference than the Pac-12. So, I think they’re going to be able to compete again for a Big 12 championship and who knows, I think they can make a run in the tournament again. They bring back a lot of pieces and Coach Roberts has shown the ability to utilize the transfer portal in a multitude of ways so I’m excited to see what’s going to be able to go on next year in the Big 12 for the women’s. For the men, you know, the same thing. We lose some key role players, Branden Carlson and Cole Bajema. But you know, there’s guys like Gabe Madsen, Rollie Worster, Devon Smith, or Deivon Smith, excuse me, who all have extra years of eligibility due to COVID. So either, you know, they’re going to take the transfer portal or they’ll come back for another year. But in my opinion, I think all three of them are going to be back. I don’t see why they wouldn’t and that just brings back our whole loaded backcourt, and then you know, our frontcourt is not losing it, not losing much as well, as we get Keba Keita and Lawson Lovering both back. Keba Keita is only a sophomore and Lawson’s only a junior. So they’ll be back for another year. And then, similar to Coach Roberts for the women’s team, I think that Coach Smith for the men’s team is going to hit the transfer portal as well. This year, we only had, I think, two people in our consistent rotation, and that was Branden Carlson and Lawson Lovering, who weren’t transfers — or not Lawson Lovering, excuse me, Keba Keita. Branden Carlson and Keba Keita were the only two guys that were recruited and came to Utah and have stayed at Utah. The rest have been through the transfer portal. So I think that Coach Smith is going to crack into the portal, get some new guys, get some fresh faces that are going to work well and mold well with the guys that are going to be returning. Opposite of the women’s team, the [Big 12] is absolutely loaded for the men’s side. So next year is going to be really, really tough, and I think that Coach Smith, coming into his fourth year next year, is going to have a really big challenge on his hands. But I think that he can get it done. We looked — the difference between last year’s team and this year’s team was very, very big. You know, we looked a lot better this year. We played some tougher teams this year and we’re able to beat some tougher teams this year, and I think that’s going to pay dividends in the long run next year when we’re playing some really, really tough opponents. 

Brooke Hale: Absolutely. It will be super exciting to see what both teams can do in the Big 12. It’s a great, great fresh start to see where they’re at and it’ll be super exciting. So great. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Kyle, and thank you for listening to the Home Stretch, The Daily Utah Chronicle’s sports podcast. Stay tuned for new episodes coming every other week. 


Transcribed by

Producer: Stevie Shaughnessey —  [email protected]  | @steviechrony

Hosts: Kyle Garrison — [email protected] | @Kylegarr23

Brooke Hale — [email protected]  | @brookehale

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About the Contributors
Stevie Shaughnessey
Stevie Shaughnessey, Home Stretch Producer, Host
Stevie is a junior transfer student at the U who is majoring in communications with an emphasis in journalism, and minoring in documentary studies. In her free time, Stevie likes to take part in many different activities, such as dirt bike riding, snowboarding and photography.
Brooke Hale
Brooke Hale, Home Stretch Host
Brooke Hale joined the Daily Utah Chronicle’s Sports Desk Podcast as a producer in the spring of 2024. She is studying Communications at the University of Utah. She recently completed her D1 soccer career at the U. She grew up in Danville, California. In her free time, she loves watching all sports, being outdoors, working out and traveling.
Kyle Garrison
Kyle Garrison, Assistant Sports Editor
Kyle garrison grew up in Spring Lake, Michigan. He moved to Salt Lake City to pursue a degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism. Kyle plans on pursuing broadcast journalism as a career once graduating from the University of Utah. Kyle started with the Chronicle this fall and has loved every minute of working with the team.
Mary Allen
Mary Allen, Design Director
(she/her) Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Mary is thrilled to be here at the University of Utah studying graphic design. She feels very lucky to get to rub shoulders with the talented people that make up the team here at the Chronicle and is learning a lot from them every day. Other than making things look cute, Mary’s passions include music, pickleball, Diet Coke, wildlife protection, and the Boston Red Sox.

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