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SALT LAKE CITY — For the Big South Conference's Gardner-Webb, the message the team carried with it into the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the Huntsman Center on Friday night was the belief that "no team is unbeatable." And for a team with a 21-game win streak going into the postseason, there was a reason for the confidence.
The Bulldogs certainly put up a fight against a second-seeded Utah team on their home court, but it had no answer for the two-headed monster of Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili and Jenna Johnson, particularly in the post. The two combined for 53 points on the night and helped Utah outscore Gardner-Webb 60-26 in the post en route to a 103-77 blowout win on Friday night.
There was no survive and advance for Utah (26-4) to start its second consecutive NCAA Tournament, just a good opening test after two weeks off following a quarterfinal loss in the Pac-12 Tournament.
"I was impressed with their competitiveness," Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said. "I think we were just bigger. But they didn't quit, and they're well coached, and they had won 21 games in a row coming into this thing; that's hard to do. So just congratulations to them on a great season. No game in this tournament is easy. I thought we controlled the game the whole time, but we had some peaks and valleys of great play and kind of loose play."
Gardner-Webb (29-4) threatened to spoil Utah's home court party in the third quarter and cut a one-time 18-point lead for the Utes down to 8 amid a "casual" style of play, Roberts said. It was at that point Roberts called a timeout to get her team to focus.
"It was frustrating. I was frustrated," Roberts said. "There was no panic or — I still felt we had control of the game. We were just not — we were just in a word, casual. Some of the turnovers were infuriating. ... It's nice that — we're lucky that we were able to win and still make those mistakes, but moving forward, that's not going to be the case.
"My mindset was just to try to get their attention, splash some water on their face, figuratively — I did not do that — and just to get them to focus," she added. "There's a lot of distractions. The NCAA Tournament is different; it just feels different. These guys are young and they're figuring it out, but it was a good learning experience; and it's one thing to say it's a learning experience, it's another thing to actually apply it and be different on Sunday."
The players got the message.
The second-seeded Utes wasted no time and pulled away from the Bulldogs in the final frame. Utah, again, went to work in the post with Johnson and then got some help from Kneepkens, who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, from 3-point range to outscore the Bulldogs 27-16 in the fourth quarter.
"Whenever we're not playing to our potential, she lets us know," Pili said of Roberts. "I think we respond well to her just getting at us. I mean, she just was telling us, this is not good enough because we're way better than what we're putting out. And it's tournament time, so everything matters that we do on the court."
Utah entered the Friday night contest as a 30-point favorite and had no problem dictating the tone of the game for much of the night, despite getting careless, at times, with the ball — Utah had 12 first-half turnovers and finished with 17 for the game. But Gardner-Webb struggled to contain Utah's depth and versatility and couldn't contain Utah's weapons.
The Bulldogs attempted to stop Pili and Johnson in the post but found themselves in foul trouble before the first half even ended. Layken Cox went into the break with four fouls, and Jhessyka Williams wasn't far behind with three. It was a futile attempt, and Utah made Gardner-Webb pay.
"We're a pressing team and we're a pressuring team," Gardner-Webb head coach Alex Simmons said. "We knew we could take advantage of them with our pressure, especially when it came to turnovers and trying to convert some of those turnovers. ... They were able to get us pretty deep in the paint for a little bit longer than what we're used to."
𝐔𝐓𝐄𝐒 𝐀𝐃𝐕𝐀𝐍𝐂𝐄 💃#GoUtes | #MarchMadnesspic.twitter.com/OlwKksXPxj— Utah Women's Basketball (@UTAHWBB) March 18, 2023
Utah shot 53% from the floor in the first half, despite only making three 3-pointers, and finished the night shooting 59% from the field. More importantly, Roberts pointed out, was that her team had 32 assists on 37 made baskets in a team-first mentality to the game.
It helped that Utah found success early with its high-low game from Pili to Johnson and utilized it time and time again. And when Gardner-Webb got in foul trouble early, it only exacerbated the problem for the Bulldogs.
"I feel like we have so many weapons offensively, so I think if the defense takes away one, we can just have another one," Johnson said. "We we're getting a lot of points down low early and then when they try to collapse on us, we can kick it out and hit 3s. So I think that's really, really hard to guard, and we'll take whatever the defense gives us."
Pili finished the night with a game-high 33 points and was two rebounds and two assists shy of a triple-double in the lopsided affair before she was subbed out of the game with 4:35 left to play. Roberts said she was tempted to leave Pili in the game in pursuit of the triple-double, but it wasn't worth the risk of injury, she added.
Johnson finished with 20 points, five assists and four rebounds in the win before she subbed out. Lani White added 10 points, four rebounds and two assists to help the Utes off the bench.
Gardner-Webb's Williams led her team with 20 points on 8-of-19 shooting. She added five rebounds in the Bulldogs' first loss of the season since Dec. 20. Ki'Ari Cain added 14 points and six assists before she fouled out with 3:55 left to play in the game.
Utah will play 10th-seeded Princeton in the second round of the tournament on Sunday at 5 p.m. MDT at the Huntsman Center. Princeton erased an 8-point NC State lead with just over five minutes left in the game and hit a corner 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left to play to take a 1-point lead. Princeton then got a stop on the other end to confirm the upset over NC State.
Big upset in SLC. Down by 2 with 11.0 seconds to play @PrincetonWBB Grace Stone drains a 3.— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) March 18, 2023
10 beats 7 seed NC State pic.twitter.com/nccQSzangW