Utah women's basketball program quietly building an NCAA Tournament resume


Save Story

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY β€” In an afternoon makeup game at the Huntsman Center in front of nearly 2,000 fans, the Utah women's basketball team overwhelmed a visiting USC team 91-69 to secure the program's fourth-straight win. In February, that mean's something a little more.

The time of the game or its location, or even the opponent, haven't mattered as of late.

The wins for the Utes have started to pile up and are anything but a rare moment for a program that had never previously scored 91 points in a conference game in the Pac-12 era.

Utah (14-7, 5-4 Pac-12) head coach Lynne Roberts said her team didn't play "perfectly" against the Trojans, who dropped to 2-9 in conference play and sit in 11th place, but that goes to show how dominant the Utes can be even when not at their best. It's a win that moved the Utes into fourth place in the conference ahead of a weekend battle against No. 2 Stanford, who remains undefeated in conference play.

"This is a great win," Roberts said. "I'm really proud of our team."

With USC out of the way, it's time for her squad to prepare for a rematch against the reigning national champion Cardinal. The first try, a home contest on Jan. 16, was a game where the Utes led with just under seven minutes left in the game before Stanford pulled away to win by 10 points. It was by no means a moral victory, but one that shows how far Utah has come over the last few seasons.

A year removed from a five-win season β€” not just in conference play, but the entire season β€” Roberts has her team quietly in contention for the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011; it would also be Roberts' first-ever Division I tournament appearance in her coaching career.

Utah currently sits in the projected field of the coveted tournament as a nine- or 10-seed, depending on the service doing the projection, and has an NCAA NET ranking of No. 21 in the country. Roberts' team also leads the country in points per possession at 1.233, beating out several teams around them squarely locked in the Big Dance.

"That's the step our program need's to take," Roberts said earlier in the week. "We need to be really solid in February. We don't have to go undefeated, but we've got to win the games we need to win and be as tough as we can and continue to learn and get better.

"It is the time when you need to start clicking at the highest level. I want to get some momentum in February, and it's going to take some serious toughness, but one at a time."

The build up to even being considered for an appearance in the NCAA Tournament has been a gradual climb and not one many expected coming off the 2020-21 season. That is, everyone but Roberts and her young roster of offensive weapons.

In the offseason, Roberts stripped everything back and retooled the entire program. Nothing was left unturned in the program's pursuit to eventually be competitive in a difficult conference that featured two teams in the national championship game last season and currently has three teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, including two in the top 10.

For the program to win more games, it wasn't going to happen by following the same script.

The offseason effort paid off, not to mention the addition of freshmen Jenna Johnson and Gianna Kneepkens, who make up two of the three top scorers on the team. Utah ranks in the top 10 in several offensive statistical categories and can go toe-to-toe with any opponent β€” at least when the shots continue to fall.

What it all means is Utah has something to play for in February as they closeout the regular season.

"We're playing for something, which is fun," Roberts said. "I don't want it to be a pressure situation. It's just got to be β€” our team's worked really hard, we've had a great year β€” not a perfect year, but a really good one, and you've just got to go one at a time.

"I think the message is, it's fun to be playing for something in February. Like this is why you do it. So the fight needs to be β€” you've got to show up and you can't just go through the motions."

It's not good enough to be considered "inside" the NCAA Tournament until officially selected, and Utah still has six more games left in the regular season to make their case abundantly clear. A win on Friday night at Maples Pavilion would go a long way to help Utah's cause, but it's not entirely necessary either.

It's a great position for the Utes to be in with a favorable schedule after its date with the Cardinal. And even against Stanford, the pressure remains on the No. 2-ranked team to stay perfect and maintain their seed line.

"We also have nothing to lose, and those are fun games, too," Roberts said of the Stanford game. "When the pressure is on them, they have to win that game; we don't. That's what makes sports fun."

Utah holds the cards they want to be holding with less than a month to go until the Pac-12 Tournament, and all of it means a potential to be the first Utah team in more than a decade to finally get to the Big Dance. And maybe, it could be the first Utah team to win a tournament game since 2009.

"This group's done a nice job of just showing up that day β€” being present that day," Roberts said about her team's mindset each day. "We don't sit around and talk about the bracketology; we haven't brought it up once β€” I know they're tracking, of course they are.

"If we can win the ones we're supposed to win, or win a certain number of games, then we'll make it, which is exciting. That's where we want to be; it's the hunt β€” we're in the hunt for something in February and middle of February, which is awesome.

Most recent Utah Utes stories

Related topics

Utah UtesSportsCollege
Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

ARE YOU GAME?

From first downs to buzzer beaters, get KSL.com’s top sports stories delivered to your inbox weekly.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast