March Madness: No. 2 seed Utah chasing more NCAA history
By PETE IACOBELLI
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) Utah won its first Pac-12 title behind All-American Alissa Pili, earned its highest seed ever at No. 2 in the Greenville 2 Regional and reached consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time in 14 years.
Still, the second-seeded Utes know they've got work to do to get noticed in the Sweet 16.
“I think we're still flying under a lot of people's radars, which is fine with us,” sophomore guard Kennady McQueen said Thursday. “We love that underdog mentality.”
Then Utah (27-4) will love its matchup Friday against No. 3 seed LSU (30-2), which is a 4.5-point favorite to advance to the Elite Eight, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“It's nothing new for us,” McQueen said. “And just continuing to prove people wrong.”
Utah coach Lynne Roberts, in her eighth season, has steadily built a a program capable of beating anyone. Things have taken off the past two years as the team won 21 games and reached the NCAA's second round a season ago. Now, the Utes are a victory away from the last eight, someplace they hadn't been since 2006.
It's been a season of achievements for Utah, picked fifth in the Pac-12 preseason. It routed then-No. 16 Oklahoma 124-78 in November and followed that up with victories over a pair of NCAA teams from the Southeastern Conference in Alabama and Ole Miss.
The Utes went 15-3 to win the league and topped Stanford 84-78 in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals. Does Roberts think her team gets its due?
“I mean, probably not, but no one in our locker room cares,” Roberts said. “We’ll compete and play and keep doing what we do, and all that stuff doesn’t really matter.”
The Utes also have a chance for greatness when Pili, a 6-foot-2 junior transfer from Southern Cal, is in the game. She averaged 20.7 points a game this season to lead her conference and was picked as a second-team AP All-American.
Pili is strong and fast, and has the ability to take and make outside shots in critical situations.
“All season long, I've been calling her a unicorn because she's just so unique,” Roberts said.
Pili will need another sublime showing against LSU and its first-team All-American Angel Reese, who has had 30 out of 32 games with double-figure points and rebounds to help the Tigers to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.
Pili expects to count on the same calm, steady approach she typically brings into each game.
“I think (it's) just the type of person I am, how I was brought up, I’m very humble, I would say,” Pili said. “So I just kind of stay level-headed and just don’t let all the accolades get to my head or put any extra pressure on me. I just go out there and do what I know how to do.”
LSU guard Alexis Morris believes her team has gained experience in defending some of the very best post players in the country like Aliyah Boston at South Carolina and Jordan Horston at Tennessee.
“I respect Pili’s game. She’s a versatile post player, but I feel like I’ve got the best post players in the country. I’m sitting right next to her,” said Morris, referencing Reese. “Hey, it's going to be a competitive game and we respect Utah and what they bring to the court.”
Utah can certainly add to that respect nationally with a victory over LSU.
“I still think there’s a lot of people out there who think we maybe don’t belong at this level or that we can’t compete," Pili said, "so I think just staying hungry and continuing to prove what we can do is just going to get us far.”
Perhaps even to the Elite Eight and beyond.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated March 23, 2023