‘We are here to make a statement’: Utah women want more than just a cameo appearance in Big Dance
Coach Lynne Roberts’ Utah team is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years
AUSTIN, Texas — Just because the Utah women’s basketball team hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2011 doesn’t mean the Utes will be satisfied to take their swag bags, give Arkansas a decent game, and head back to Salt Lake City thankful for the experience.
That was seven-year coach Lynne Roberts’ message Thursday morning as she, junior Brynna Maxwell and senior Dru Gylten addressed the media at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, site of Friday’s first-round game with the 10th-seeded Razorbacks (18-13).
No. 7 seed Utah (20-11)
vs. No. 10 seed Arkansas (18-13)
Friday, 3:30 p.m. MDT
At Frank Erwin Center, Austin Texas
Radio: ESPN AM 700
The seventh-seeded Utes (20-11), who gave No. 1 seed Stanford all it wanted for three-fourths of the Pac-12 championship game 12 days ago in Las Vegas, are here to make some noise and continue the program’s upward trend, they said.
Tipoff is at 3:30 p.m. MDT and the game will be televised by ESPNews; the Utah-Arkansas winner will meet the winner of the No. 2 Texas-No. 15 Fairfield first-round matchup in a second-round game Sunday.
“We are not just happy to be here,” Roberts said. “We are not content to just make the tournament. We want to play well, compete and advance.”
Utah lost 67-54 to Notre Dame in 2011 in its last game in the Big Dance, a game played in Salt Lake City although the Irish were a No. 2 seed and the Utes a No. 15.
The Utes’ last win in March Madness was in 2009 under legendary coach Elaine Elliott, when they beat Villanova 60-30 in College Park, Maryland, before losing 71-56 to the Terrapins in the second round.
“We were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 so everyone kind of has a chip on their shoulder. We are not here to play games and finish where everyone wants us to finish. We are here to make a statement.” — Utah guard Brynna Maxwell
“Everyone is ready to play,” Maxwell said. “Like Dru said, this is one of the most competitive teams ever. We are not just here to say we got here. … It’s a business trip.”
The South by Southwest, a festival of film, music and just about everything else, has captured the attention of this central Texas city, as it always does in mid-March. But the Utes are out to grab a piece of the national women’s college basketball spotlight, they said, and represent the Pac-12 after finishing sixth in the league race.
“It is fun coming to a new city and new state, but I don’t think any of us have asked if we can wander around (and see the festival),” Gylten said. “We are here for the tournament. … We are here to enjoy it, but the (entire) focus is to win a game.”
Roberts said the players “know better” than to ask if they can do some sightseeing. She said Utah and Arkansas are “strangely very similar” in that they both like to push the pace and shoot 3-pointers, and surmised that the selection committee “had some fun setting this game up, which is great. I love it.”
The Utes lead the Pac-12 in scoring at 76.0 points per game, 18th in the NCAA. They have made a school-record 291 3-pointers, which ranks seventh in the nation. They have won 10 of their last 14 games, losing only to Stanford (twice), USC and Oregon in that stretch.
“We were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 so everyone kind of has a chip on their shoulder,” Maxwell said. “We are not here to play games and finish where everyone wants us to finish. We are here to make a statement. … We are not close to being done with our season. I am not ready to say goodbye to Dru or the rest of our seniors.”
Arkansas played on the Erwin Center floor in last year’s tournament, falling to Wright State. The Razorbacks were considered a bubble team a few weeks ago, but defeated Mississippi State and Missouri to snap a four-game losing streak and get on the right side of the bubble before losing 76-54 to No. 1 seed South Carolina in an SEC quarterfinal game.
Like Utah, Arkansas will have to battle some rust, having not played the last 14 days. The Utes have some experience in that department, however, having gone from Dec. 21 to Jan. 14 without playing a game due to a COVID-19 pause.
“It’s March Madness and we are excited to play somebody different, so that (will help),” Gylten said. “Just not getting too high or too low is our focus, and just being grateful to play another game and survive and advance here in Texas.”
Utah will be without starting center Peyton McFarland, who made the trip but is sidelined by a knee injury she suffered at the Pac-12 tournament. Freshman Jenna Johnson has been limited by a foot issue — she served as a rebounder in the 15 minutes of shooting practice that the media was allowed to watch Thursday — but is expected to play.
The Utes shot the ball well in those 15 minutes, tickling the twine repeatedly from distance in some high-paced drills. Maxwell, who has the quickest release in the Pac-12, perhaps the country, said the Utes will adjust well to an unfamiliar arena because they’ve done it before.
“You get used to playing in different gyms, with different hoops,” she said. “Our assistant coach says shooters shoot — it doesn’t matter which rims you are shooting at.”
Added Gylten, who is six dimes away from moving into fourth place on Utah’s career assists list: “We don’t make excuses (for) the lighting, the rim is too tight, new gym, new court. … At the end of the day we have amazing shooters and that’s what they do best. So I am sure the ball will go into the basket tomorrow.”
The game features two of the top freshmen in the country — Utah’s Gianna Kneepkens, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (voted by the coaches) and Arkansas’ Samara Spencer, the SEC Freshman of the Year.
“It is going to be a really fun matchup with the two freshmen,” Gylten said. “Gianna handles that pressure well. She doesn’t really let that affect her.”
Spencer is one of four Razorbacks averaging in double figures, scoring 12.0 points per game. Kneepkens also averages 12.0 points per game, which leads the Utes.