‘Just really, really fun to coach’: Is Utah’s women’s basketball team primed for NCAA Tournament at-large bid?
Utes (15-8) were picked to finish second to last in the Pac-12, but are currently in fifth place with four games remaining before the Pac-12 tourney in Las Vegas
Plenty of games remain to be played, but the 2021-22 women’s basketball team at the University of Utah might be the best yet in coach Lynne Roberts’ seven seasons guiding the Utes.
It has already achieved another distinction.
“I can honestly say this is the funnest group I have had in years, even before I came to Utah (from Pacific in 2015),” said Roberts. “Just really, really fun to coach.”
“It is exciting in the middle of February to be playing for something. And we continue to be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament. If it was tomorrow, we would be in it.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts
Utah is 15-8 overall, 6-5 in the rugged Pac-12, and is starting to get some votes in the national polls. The Utes have a NET ranking of 23. They have won five of their last six games heading into this weekend’s trip to Los Angeles to play USC on Friday and UCLA on Sunday.
“It is exciting in the middle of February to be playing for something,” Roberts said Tuesday in a news conference at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility on campus. “And we continue to be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament. If it was tomorrow, we would be in it.”
Utah hasn’t been to the Big Dance since it joined the Pac-12 prior to the 2011-12 season. Its last appearance in March Madness was in 2011 under coach Anthony Levrets, after it won the Mountain West Conference tournament championship.
Barring an unexpected collapse, the Utes’ breakthrough should come March 13, when the NCAA Women’s Selection Show is held the same day as the men’s show for the first time. Charlie Creme, ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist, has the Utes as a No. 8 seed in his latest projections, saying Utah could meet No. 9 seed South Dakota in Raleigh, North Carolina, home of No. 1 seed North Carolina State.
Should the Utes get past the first round, a matchup with a No. 1 seed isn’t as daunting as it would appear. Utah has already given No. 2 Stanford, the defending national champion, a couple of good games the past month. They led the Cardinal in Salt Lake City with two minutes remaining on Jan. 16 before falling 83-73, and were down by just 10 at halftime in Palo Alto, California, last Friday before losing 91-64. They played without 6-foot-2 freshman forward Jenna Johnson, their third-leading scorer (10.7) and leading rebounder (4.5) in that game.
“It’s a really cohesive, driven, competitive team,” said star freshman Gianna Kneepkens, the five-time (and counting) Pac-12 freshman of the week who is averaging 12 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. “Most of all, it is just a great bunch of people to be around. We are having a great time.”
And doing a lot of winning. Utah was picked to tie with Washington for 10th place in the Pac-12 preseason poll, but is currently in fifth place (tied for fourth in the loss column).
“So we have got some fun stuff to play for and it is crazy that the season is kinda winding down, but it is gearing up as well,” Roberts said. “There is heightened urgency. The target is in sight — you can see it. And we got to sharpen up and clean some things up, but it is a fun time to be playing for something.”
It doesn’t seem fair that Utah has to play four straight road games in the middle of February, but Roberts shrugged it off, saying her team is only worried about what it can control.
“It is just the short straw,” she said. “Sometimes you get it. … It is what it is. Hopefully this is not a recurring issue, but not much we can do about it. We just play the games and do the best we can.”
Utah returns home next week to host Oregon State on Feb. 24 and Oregon on Feb. 26, then heads to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament March 2-6 at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
The 2022 women’s NCAA Tournament will include a field of 68 teams — giving teams like the Utes a little more margin for error — and the Final Four is in Minneapolis.
Utah hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2009, when Elaine Elliott was the coach.
“If we can finish strong and make the tournament, the snowball effect comes,” said Roberts, who has described her program as being in a “good spot” and “on the rise” since the season began. “Because that all helps in recruiting and everything else, too. We need that (NCAA appearance) to legitimize ourselves nationally with those high-level recruits that we are recruiting.”
The Utes might be a year or two away from making some real noise in the Pac-12 and NCAAs, but don’t tell them that. Roberts starts three freshmen and two sophomores, led by Kneepkens, Johnson, North Summit High product Kennedy McQueen (a sophomore) and junior Brynna Maxwell, a Pac-12-All-Freshman first-team selection two years ago before the pandemic hit.
Maxwell chips in 11.2 points and 3.5 rebounds a game, but has a different role this year than the past two years with more scorers on the floor. She leads the team with 50 3-pointers, and the Utes are 10th in the country in 3-pointers made. Utah has the most efficient offense in the country.
“She is still one of the best shooters in the country,” Roberts said. “I told her yesterday: ‘You are still going to win us a game at some point soon, with your ability.’ … She is still just as critical to us. She is probably our most critical scorer. I will never, ever stop calling her number, when we need a bucket. She is just that good.”
Senior guard Dru Gylten is slowly getting back from a hip injury — Utah hasn’t been at full strength for awhile — but recently recorded her 500th career assist and is No. 5 on the Utes’ all-time list in that category.
Roberts said Gylten is finally off her minutes restriction, while Johnson has had some foot pain that kept her from playing in the second halves against USC and Stanford and the entire game against Cal.
“So hopefully she won’t be down this weekend, but I can’t really say,” Roberts said. “I honestly don’t know. … Hopefully by the Pac-12 tournament, at the latest, we are at full health. That will be great.”