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Utah women’s basketball: Alissa Pili makes the difference as undefeated Utes beat BYU

Alissa Pili scored 28 points for the second consecutive game as the Utes held off in-state rival BYU 76-59.

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Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili lays the ball up

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) goes to the hoop ahead of BYU Cougars forward Emma Calvert (25) during a game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Utah women’s basketball team is undefeated and ranked 15th in the country. They knew they would be good after their run to the Pac-12 tournament championship game last season.

But what’s made them even better has been Alissa Pili.

The 6-foot-2 junior transfer from Southern Cal quickly moved into the starting lineup and expects to stay there. Saturday night, she scored 28 points for the second consecutive game as the Utes held off in-state rival BYU 76-59 to improve to 8-0 and reach another goal with league competition approaching next week.

“Today was Alissa Pili’s day,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts. “They didn’t have an answer for her. When she’s going like that, I don’t know if anybody in the country does. 

“The (scoring) balance is the key,” she added. “Some of our kids that normally produce didn’t have good shooting nights. If one person doesn’t score 28, we don’t have a shot (to win).”

Pili made a dizzying array of close shots and even added a three-pointer. She scored seven of Utah’s first nine points as the Utes built a quick lead and never trailed. The margin was 39-27 at halftime, and then Pili, Gianna Kneepkens (18 points), Izzy Palmer and former Judge Memorial standout Teya Sidberry made enough big plays to turn away the Cougars’ rally.

“BYU did a nice job but we always seemed to answer the bell,” Roberts said. “We’d always seem to get a few (points) and keep a comfortable distance.”

Lauren Gustin and Nani Falatea each had 18 points for BYU, and Gustin added 15 rebounds, which is about her normal effort so far this year. The Cougars trailed by as many as 20, but came back in the final period to get within 11 before Robert inserted defensive-specialist Dasia Young back onto the court.

That led to a pair of missed BYU shots and a couple of turnovers. Kneepkens then helped the Utes regain momentum with one of her five 3-pointers.

Amber Whiting, BYU’s first-year coach in her first rivalry game, appreciated her team’s effort and how it also got the home crowd into the game.

There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of energy,” said Whiting, whose team fell to 4-6 but had high hopes after a pair road wins over Boise State and Utah State. “The experience of getting to that moment and being able to take it over the top, hit the shot, or make the play, that will come. Right now, they’re really young and really inexperienced, and they’re getting that experience.”

Falatea’s efforts got BYU back into the contest. The Salt Lake-area freshman frequently drove toward the basket, broke down the Utes’ defense and then uses her ambidextrous ability to spin shots off the glass. She took 21 of BYU’s 58 attempts and also added six assists. 

Kaylee Smiler and Rose Brubaker each had nine points for the Cougars, who open their West Coast Conference schedule next Saturday with another tough game at Gonzaga (8-2).

They may not face another player like Pili, the former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (at USC) who now averages 20.9 points per game, but was clearly tired after playing a season-high 33 of the game’s 40 minutes.

“It was a great team win. I know how rivalries go and they wanted to beat us bad,” Pili said. “But we kept our composure and played hard and smart.

“That’s part of the reason I came here. I’m surrounded my shooters and I can create shots for them. It’s working for us. It’s such a great feeling (to be undefeated). This is probably the best start of the season I’ve ever had.”