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Utah women’s basketball team soaring to new heights this season — and without any seniors

Coach Lynne Roberts’ Utes are 12-0 and ranked No. 11 in the country as they resume Pac-12 play Friday and Sunday at the Washington schools

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Utah Utes women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts strategizes during a timeout in the game against the Colorado Buffaloes.

Utah Utes women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts strategizes during a timeout in the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Roberts has the Utes off to an undefeated start and a No. 11 national ranking.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Of all the impressive stats and accomplishments the Utah women’s basketball team has already recorded this season, perhaps the most startling development is the fact that coach Lynne Roberts’ roster includes no seniors.

Not a one.

The undefeated women of Utah are having, by far, the best season of any basketball team in the state as the calendar turns to 2023. That’s not surprising, considering what the Utes did last season with many of the same players who comprise this season’s squad.

“We are at the point where the next phase of our development as a program is getting our community really engaged with us.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts

“We have really improved, but we are going to get tested here soon, and for the rest of the season in Pac-12 play,” Roberts told the Deseret News on Wednesday. “The goal is always to do better than we did before, but we are in no way (satisfied).”

The No. 11 Utes (1-0, 12-0) resume Pac-12 play Friday at Washington State (0-1, 10-2) and then play at Washington (1-0, 9-2) on Sunday. Utah has certainly proved it is for real with nonconference wins over No. 16 Oklahoma (the Sooners’ only loss to date), Alabama, Ole Miss and BYU to go with the Pac-12-opening 85-58 rout of Colorado on Dec. 14, but now it becomes a grind every time out against familiar competition.

“We gotta go bit by bit and not look ahead,” Roberts said when asked if the Utes have adjusted their goals after the phenomenal start. “So this week our goal is to be better than last week, to beat Wazzu, and then Saturday morning when we wake up, the goal is to go beat Washington. And so we try to stay one step ahead of yesterday, but not get too far ahead of ourselves at all.”

Getting ahead of themselves would be easy to do, considering how the Utes have pummeled almost every opponent to date. They served notice that they are a legitimate threat to Stanford’s grip on the Pac-12 title with that 124-78 win over Oklahoma at the Huntsman Center back on Nov. 16, and have just kept rolling.

After a Cinderella run to the Pac-12 tournament championship game last season, and then a first-round NCAA Tournament win over Arkansas, 92-69, the Utes knew they were going to be good in 2022-23 because point guard Dru Gylten was the only notable contributor moving on.

But this good?

“We have some really, really good players,” Roberts said. “We’ve got talent, and we’ve got (good) depth.”

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Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) passes the ball against Colorado Buffaloes center Quay Miller (11) and forward Brianna McLeod (25) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Roberts acknowledges that the addition of USC transfer Alissa Pili has been a big reason why. The junior forward from Anchorage, Alaska, leads the Utes in scoring with a 20.1 average, which ranks third in the Pac-12 and 19th in the country. Pili, who has been especially valuable because fellow post player Peyton McFarland is slowly returning from an ACL injury suffered in the Pac-12 tournament last March, is sixth in the country in field-goal percentage (66.4%) and recently topped the 1,000-point plateau for her career.

“Yeah, adding (Pili) has been big,” Roberts said. “I always tease that I recruited her out of high school, but she didn’t answer my calls. But now we got her here, and all is well that ends well.”

Pili played for USC for three seasons, but when she entered the transfer portal Roberts and her staff jumped at the chance to get the 6-2 star who was twice picked as the National Female Athlete of the Year in high school by MaxPreps.

Pili opened her career as a Ute by scoring 27 points against Idaho; she had 28 against BYU and Mississippi Valley State.

“She is so unique in her ability to score,” Roberts said. “She is one of the most efficient players that I have ever been around. She has bought into what we are trying to do and she has got herself into the best shape of her life.”

At point guard, the Utes “haven’t skipped a beat,” Roberts said, after Gylten transferred back home to South Dakota. Junior guard Issy Palmer of Australia and sophomore guard Ines Vieira of Portugal add an international flair and are great at pushing the pace so Pili and returning stars such as Gianna Kneepkens, Kennedy McQueen and Jenna Johnson can get out and run, and fire up 3-pointers — which remains a key element of Utah’s attack.

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A happy Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts on the sideline during victory over Oklahoma at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

“They kind of share the (starting point guard) role; they both play kinda equal minutes,” Roberts said. “They are both incredibly fast and push the tempo for us and do an amazing job. But they are also different types of players, which is really nice.”

This is the highest the Utes have been ranked since they were at No. 11 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll for one week in January 1998. They are No. 6 in the NCAA NET rankings, second-best among Pac-12 schools. Stanford is at No. 3.

The Utes can tie their second best start in program history if they can beat Washington State Friday afternoon in Pullman. It is the third time Utah has started 11-0 or better in Roberts’ eight-year tenure. Utah is one of only six undefeated teams in the country entering this weekend.

How high can this team soar?

Roberts won’t touch that one, saying only that there is a Sweet 16 banner (from 2000-2001) in the Utes’ practice gym, and she circled the year after that, which is blank because Utah went 15-12 the following year and didn’t make the Big Dance.

“So there is a daily reminder of what ultimately we want to get to,” she said. “It is kind of a daily thing. We don’t talk about it, but it is there. My philosophy on goals is we want to talk about our end goal, be we don’t talk about it every day.”

Offensively, Roberts had few concerns entering this season, and her premonition has been correct. The Utes are No 2 in the nation in scoring, averaging 92.5 points per game. They are in the top five in five major statistical categories, including field-goal percentage (66.4%), assists per game (21.4), scoring margin (+34.6) and assist/turnover ratio (1.52).

They have made eight or more 3-pointers in seven games.

“To keep it up, we have to keep improving,” Roberts said. “I know that is cliche’ but it is true. And we have to stay healthy, and keep it going that way. Our team is so bought in right now, and so committed.

“As coaches, we don’t have to deal with any of the other stuff. We just have to deal with who we are playing, and what we are doing, and then just to continue to have that motivation to get better.”

All without having a senior on the roster, which bodes well for next season, too, if Roberts can keep the band together in this day and age of the transfer portal and NIL enticements from other schools.

So now’s the time to jump on the bandwagon, if you aren’t there already, Roberts says.

“We are at the point where the next phase of our development as a program is getting our community really engaged with us,” Roberts said.

Because everybody loves a winner, especially one that can shoot the long ball.

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Utah Utes celebrate their win over Oklahoma at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics