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‘It’s like the cherry on top’: Utah women thrilled with their NCAA Tournament seeding, matchup

Coach Lynne Roberts’ team earned a No. 7 seed, will face Arkansas on Friday in Austin, Texas, in a first-round game

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Utah Utes head coach Lynne Roberts, yells at the referee as Utah and BYU women compete in a basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Getting behind the proverbial eight ball is never good in anything. Getting an eight or nine seed in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is even worse.

That’s why there was a huge roar of approval Sunday night at the Jon and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility on campus at the University of Utah when the women’s team received a No. 7 seed in the Big Dance. 

The Utes (20-11) will face No. 10 seed Arkansas (18-13) of the Southeastern Conference on Friday in Austin, Texas, as part of the Spokane Regional.

The Pac-12’s Utah is making its first appearance in the tournament since 2011, its final season in the Mountain West Conference.

“That’s the longest half hour I can remember any time,” quipped Utah coach Lynne Roberts after the Utes watched the Selection Show in her office and the Utes didn’t show up in the first two regionals.

As each 8-9 game was announced, the Utes cheered nervously when their name didn’t pop up on the television screen, glad they didn’t have to play a No. 1 seed on its home court in the second round.

Unlike the men’s tournament, which is played at neutral sites, the women’s tournament features first- and second-round games at the arenas of the top 16 overall seeds.

As it is, the Utes could see No. 2 seed Texas of the Big 12 in the round of 32, if they get by Arkansas and Texas downs No. 15 seed Fairfield at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, as expected.

Friday’s tipoff time has not yet been announced.

Generally, the Utes are thrilled with the seeding, with Roberts saying their run to the Pac-12 championship game last week — they lost to No. 1 seed Stanford in the final — probably “didn’t hurt” the Utes’ goal of getting off the 8-9 line.

“There wasn’t the nervousness of, ‘Are we going to make it?’ It was just the nerves of, ‘Where are we going to be?’” Roberts said. “If we could have chosen it, we would have been off the 8-9 line, for obvious reasons, but we would have been happy anywhere.”

This is the second time the Utes have been a No. 7 seed in their 18 appearances in the Big Dance. They just posted their 29th 20-win season in program history, a year after going 5-16 overall, 4-15 in league play.

“It just takes time to do things the right way, and I am proud of how we have done it,” said Roberts, who is in her seventh season in Salt Lake City, “and excited about not just the season and finishing the right way, but making some noise in the tournament, and what the foundation is for the future.”

Utah will be without starting center Peyton McFarland, who sustained a lower leg injury in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, Roberts said.

Senior point guard Dru Gylten told Roberts that she was more nervous watching the show than she was before games.

“It has been a while for this program, so yeah, I am joking that my heart rate was at 120,” Gylten said.

“But it was full of excitement and I am so proud of this team. We have worked so hard this season to make it to this moment, so it is out of excitement, not nerves.”

Junior guard Brynna Maxwell said she was more anxious than she has been her entire life.

“It was not like we were scared we were not going to get selected,” Maxwell said. “It was just anticipation for what is to come, and who we are going to play.

“It is the first time for all of us to be a part of this, and it is really cool being able to experience this together.”

Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring at exactly 76 points per game, which is 17th in the country.

Arkansas likes to run and shoot 3s as well, so Roberts expects a high-scoring, entertaining affair.

“They have a great team. We have similar styles. They will get out and run and they will shoot it. They will shoot it a lot,” she said.

“They play a fun style of basketball to watch as well, so it will probably be a track meet, I would anticipate. A lot of scoring, an up-tempo game, so I am sure it will be fun.”

Speaking of which, Roberts made a plea for Utah fans and alumni to get to Austin for the weekend games. If the Utes win, their second-round game will be on Sunday.

“Any of our faithful Utes that are down in the Austin area or even close, please come,” she said. “We need your help, need your support. Please come and wear your red.

“But not Arkansas red. Ute red.”

Arkansas finished eighth in the SEC, then lost to South Carolina in the SEC quarterfinals. 

Gylten, who recently became engaged, said she never doubted that the Utes would make the Big Dance this season, even as the program dipped a bit the last few years.

“So I wouldn’t change the past four years for anything,” she said.

“It is like the cherry on top and we are all so excited. … It has been a great couple of weeks.”