SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah women’s basketball team is looking for respect in the Pac-12 Conference and a berth in next month’s NCAA tournament.
Coach Lynne Roberts’s team took a step forward in both areas Sunday as Brynna Maxwell scored 11 points, Gianna Kneepkens had 10 and Kelsey Rees grabbed 11 rebounds in the Utes’ 72-66 win over Washington State Sunday afternoon at the Huntsman Center.
The victory was the Utes’ third straight in league play, and they improved to 13-7 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-12. Utah is now in a tie for sixth place in the standings at the league’s halfway point.
The Pac-12 currently has three teams in the top 25 and Roberts said the Utes’ handling of Washington State (14-7) was likely their biggest win so far this season.
“This was a quality win — one that we needed — to get a foothold in the NCAA tournament,” Roberts said. “We found a way to win and I’m really proud of my team and their desire to get it done.”
Next up? A home match Wednesday afternoon against lowly Southern Cal (2-7, 9-10), and Roberts said her team is feeling confident.
“Both teams needed this one and really wanted it,” she said. “I knew that at some point that they would have a run in them because they are just too good and too experienced.”
WSU had won four straight games to move just behind powers Stanford, Arizona and Oregon into fourth place. The Cougars reached the NCAAs last year and entered this season with five returning starters from faraway places like New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Estonia, Rwanda and, surprisingly, only just one from Washington.
The Cougars’ Charlisse Leger-Walker and Bella Murekatete scored right away as WSU jumped to a 6-0 lead but the Utes quickly recovered by using their 10-deep lineup and everyone contributed.
Following a timeout, freshman Peyton McFarland entered the game and helped end WSU’s fast start by using her 6-foot-4 frame to combat Murekatete. McFarland played just 11 minutes, and backed up Rees with nine points and four rebounds. She also got Murekatete into foul trouble and WSU’s best athlete was never a factor again.
The Utes, the top 3-point shooting team in the league, then got the hot hand, pulling away to a 38-29 halftime edge. Kneepkens, who made just one of her first seven shots, nailed two treys to open the third quarter to keep the team’s momentum going, and Maka Jackson, Dasia Young and Coalville’s Kennady McQueen made important baskets in the final period to prevent WSU from getting any closer than six points.
“I wanted the ball to keep going in,” said Kneepkens, who averaged 43.1 points per game in high school with a career-best of 67. “I’m a shooter, so I’ll just keep shooting it.”
“Those were big baskets,” added Roberts.
The Utes built their lead to 20 points early in the fourth quarter, and withstood WSU’s final desperate hope. Johanna Teder had 16 points for the Cougars and Leger-Walker 15. WSU, however, made just 6 of 22 treys and saw its three-game win streak against the Utes end.