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Kneepkens scores 24 on birthday as Utes upset Ducks to reach first Pac-12 title game


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SALT LAKE CITY β€” In two quarters of play, the game changed.

No. 2-seeded Oregon built up an 11-point lead at the end of the first quarter and appeared primed to overwhelm the sixth-seeded Utes with their size advantage in the semifinal round of the Pac-12 women's basketball tournament at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas.

The moment β€” a first-ever semifinal appearance for the Utes in the Pac-12 era β€” looked to be too big for the Utes against a team that beat them twice in the regular season and was looking for a rematch against a top-seeded Stanford team in the championship game.

But over the second and third quarters, Utah erased a double-digit deficit and turned it into a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter. In all, it was a 21-point swing and one Oregon didn't see coming after their red-hot start on offense.

Utah was unfazed by the moment and closed out the night with an 80-73 win to upset the Ducks.

"Disappointed, but this has been our season in a nutshell, to be honest with you. We're up and down, a roller coaster most of the year. We just never know what to expect," Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. "But I just thought Utah was the more aggressive team tonight. And unfortunately we just didn't play our best basketball, but I always give them the credit."

The game didn't go down without some controversy at the end, though.

Oregon erased a one-time 10-point Utah lead and reclaimed a 1-point lead on a layup by Nyara Sabally with 3:56 left in regulation β€” the Ducks weren't conceding the match just yet. But on the ensuing Utah possession, Sabally was whistled for a foul on a 3-point shot by Kennady McQueen.

Sabally protested the foul β€” her fifth and final of the night β€” and believed she only hit McQueen's hand on the defensive attempt as the ball fell short of the basket. Amid the protest, Graves was assessed a technical foul, which he said was unwarranted because he didn't say anything to the refs.

"I didn't say anything. Didn't say a thing. There you go. That gets you a T these days," Graves said after the game. "And I'm not joking. You know how everybody saw β€” I didn't say anything. I did not say a thing. That question needs to be asked of someone else."

McQueen went to the line and made all three free throws and then one of the two foul shots for the technical. Suddenly, all of Oregon's momentum and a 1-point lead vanished as Utah reclaimed the lead, 69-66.

It was a palpable shift in Utah's favor, who continued to attack the rim and build up another lead that ballooned to 10 points before Oregon hit a 3-pointer at the end of regulation.

Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Gianna Kneepkens hit a clutch layup in the paint after the controversial moment and then followed it up with a pair of made free throws to put distance on Oregon. Kneepkens, who celebrated her 19th birthday Friday, was in attack mode in the second half and scored a team-high 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

"Best birthday I've had so far of all my years," Kneepkens said. "It was awesome."

Kneepkens didn't want to return back to Salt Lake City just yet β€” at least not until the team checked off a Pac-12 championship appearance on the list of things to do while in Las Vegas, and maybe even winning it all against the reigning national champions Stanford Sunday (4 p.m. MST, ESPN2).

The key moment for the Utes came in the third quarter when Kneepkens opened up the second half with a 3-pointer. Her triple was followed up two minutes later by back-to-back 3-pointers by Jenna Johnson and McQueen, and then another 3-pointer by Kneepkens as part of a 16-1 run by the Utes to take its first double-digit lead.

Oregon's Te-Hina Paopao finally put an end to the extended Utah run with a pair of made free throws, but the damage had already been done. Utah's offense came alive, and the team's defense made it difficult for Oregon to get good looks on the other end.

"It's been our worst quarter all year. Our worst quarter all year. Fourth quarter has been our best. And the third the worst," Graves said. "They came out early, hit a couple of 3s, I think, in the first two possessions. And I think that set the tone. Then we're playing a little bit of catch-up. I've got to give my team a ton of credit. We battled back. Had a chance. We were down 10 or 11 and had a chance. That's when I made a stupid play."

The Ducks had four players score in double figures, with Paopao finishing with a team-high 17 points, four rebounds and four assists. Endyia Rogers added 15 points, and Sabally and Sedona Prince added 12 points apiece. Sebally, before fouling out, recorded a double-double, with 12 rebounds in only 17 minutes of play.

Kelsey Rees added 14 points for the Utes, and Johnson and McQueen added 13 points apiece in the win.

"It's a great day," Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said. "And I couldn't be more excited for this team and where we're at. And they say it's hard to believe, but with this team I actually do believe it."

Utah will get a day off before a Sunday afternoon tilt against the reigning national champions. But its a matchup where Roberts said the pressure is all on the Cardinal to win.

"Our team and staff respects the heck out of Stanford," she said. "We know how talented they are. They're the reigning national champions. So much respect for them but I'm not fearful of the game. I'm not intimidated of, like, oh, no. But the pressure's on them, too. It's fun to be the underdog. It's fun to come into a game and say if you're open shoot it. What's the worst that could happen?"

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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.

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