Utah women’s basketball: Utes hope to end long pause for COVID-19 Thursday against visiting Cal
Coach Lynne Roberts had her 8-3 team playing well before four Pac-12 games had to be postponed due to health and safety protocols within the program
Some losses are harder to sit on than others.
Take the University of Utah women’s basketball team’s last loss, for instance. It came way back on Dec. 21, which is the last time the Utes were able to take the court, due to COVID-19 issues within the program.
Coach Lynne Roberts’ team led now-No. 23 Oklahoma by 18 points in the third quarter, but caught the turnover bug down the stretch and fell 83-76 in Norman. It felt like the grinch had stolen the Utes’ Christmas.
Then it got worse. When players and coaches returned from the holiday break, at least one was infected with the virus. And it continued to spread, to the point where four Pac-12 games, set for Dec. 31 and Jan. 2, 7 and 9 against Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and USC, respectively, had to be postponed.
Utes, Golden Bears on the air
Utah (8-3, 0-0) vs. California (9-4, 0-2)
Thursday, 7 p.m. MST
At the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
TV: Pac-12 Bay Area
“We are not unique in this,” Roberts said Tuesday. “A lot of teams are dealing with it now. You go home for Christmas, everybody is traveling, they all travel back, and it is a cesspool of risk.”
Gone was a lot of momentum the Utes (8-3) had garnered, the OU finish notwithstanding, against a really good nonconference schedule that has their NET ranking sitting at a very respectable No. 23. If the NCAA Tournament began today, Utah almost certainly would be in the Big Dance, a remarkable turnaround considering last year’s dismal ending.
“Unfortunately, we had just kind of a domino effect (where) one kid tested positive, (we) quarantined her,” Roberts said. “Two days later, two more test positive, (we) quarantine them, to the point where we were completely shut down.
“Maybe the silver lining is that most of us have had it and we are through it,” she continued. “We got out of protocols yesterday. So it has been a long time since we have played a game.”
Keep your fingers crossed, but that long layoff should end Thursday.
Twenty-three days after that memorable meltdown in the Sooner State, the Utes are scheduled to host the Cal Bears (9-4, 0-2) in their “new” Pac-12 opener on Thursday at the Huntsman Center. Tipoff is at 7 p.m., and fans who wear black get in free.
Utah hosts defending national champion Stanford (11-3, 3-1) on Sunday. The Cardinal are No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 3 in the NET rankings.
Stanford is “coached by the best to ever do it (Tara VanDerveer), so we know we have our hands full there,” Roberts said. “But Cal is having a really, really good year. They are playing hard. They have some really good young players. They just took a tough loss to Oregon at home, so I know they will be fired up, ready to play us.”
Utah, meanwhile, is hungry to just play a game. Before the long pause, “which was a bummer,” according to Roberts, the Utes were bouncing back nicely from last year’s forgettable 5-16 season.
Their only losses were to BYU (No. 25 in the NET rankings) and Gonzaga (No. 33) before the loss at Oklahoma (No. 26). Utah’s NET ranking was, and remains, the fourth-best in the Pac-12.
“We were having, and still are, a great season,” Roberts said. “Off to a good start, high NET ranking, good record, good strength of schedule, really good numbers, statistically.”
For instance, Utah is averaging 85.4 points a game and outscoring opponents by an average of 20.4 points per game. The Utes are shooting 47% from the field and holding opponents to 41%.
Scoring balance and hot 3-point shooting have been the Utes’ calling cards on offense. Jenna Johnson (13.8), Brynna Maxwell (12.8) and Gianna Kneepkens (10.8) average in double figures, and North Summit High product Kennady McQueen is close at 9.8 per game. Johnson grabs 6.1 rebounds per game.
“I am grateful that we are back, and our team looks hungry to get back out there,” Roberts said, noting that Utah finally got out of protocols on Monday, but still didn’t have a full roster available on Tuesday. “I am sure on Thursday there will be a little bit of rust, but it is what it is. I am not asking anyone to feel sorry for us. Other teams have gone through it. We just gotta muscle up and get through it.”
The coach said the Pac-12 office is working to reschedule the four missed games.
“This whole COVID thing is unfortunate for everybody worldwide, and it is important we keep (proper) perspective,” she said. “It is just basketball games that we lost, and we will be fine. We will bounce back and we will get ready for Cal on Thursday.”