Based on who is coming back, there might not be a college basketball program in the state of Utah with a brighter immediate future than the University of Utah’s women’s team.

Barring any unexpected transfers or departures, coach Lynne Roberts’ squad will look a lot in October like it did this weekend in Austin, Texas, when it demolished Arkansas 92-69 in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament before falling to second-seeded Texas 78-56 in a Round of 32 loss that ended its turnaround season at 21 wins, 12 losses.

There is one extremely notable exception, of course. Starting senior guard Dru Gylten is almost assuredly moving on, although she told the Deseret News last week that she hasn’t made it 100% official. Because of the NCAA-allowed “extra year” due to COVID-19 altering the 2020-21 season, Gylten could theoretically return if she wants to.

“I am incredibly proud of our team. We’re so young. Our culture is fantastic. Our kids bought in. They play super hard. They’re coachable.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts

Fellow seniors Andrea Torres and Maka Jackson also participated in Senior Day ceremonies on Feb. 26 and will need to be replaced.

“I am incredibly proud of our team,” Roberts said Sunday night after the loss to Sweet 16-bound Texas in which the Utes played well in the first and fourth quarters on the Longhorns’ home court in front of a crowd of 4,960 mostly burnt orange-clad fans, but looked overwhelmed in the middle quarters.

“We’re so young,” Roberts continued. “Our culture is fantastic. Our kids bought in. They play super hard. They’re coachable.”

And a lot of them should be back, led by starting freshmen Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson and starting sophomores Kennady McQueen, Peyton McFarland and Kelsey Rees, who filled in admirably at forward/center when McFarland got injured in the Pac-12 tournament.

Utah guard Kennady McQueen drives to the basket against Texas guard Audrey Warren during second-round NCAA Tournament game, Sunday, March 20, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Utah came up short against the Longhorns, but the future for the Utah women’s program looks bright. | Eric Gay, Associated Press

It was in that Pac-12 tournament that Utah really showed its mettle and promise of better things to come, defeating California, Washington State and Oregon on successive nights before falling 73-48 to No. 1 seed and reigning national champion Stanford in a game that was close until the fourth quarter.

“Time will give perspective on what we achieved this year, and I am excited to see what we can do in the future,” said Roberts.

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Another freshman, guard Ines Vieira of Portugal, filled in well when Gylten needed a breather and should keep the point guard position in good hands. Juniors Isabel Palmer of Australia, Brynna Maxwell of Gig Harbor, Washington, and Dasia Young, a transfer from Tennessee-Martin, were valuable role players in 2021-21 and could push for bigger roles next season.

Maxwell, for instance, was the team’s star as a freshman and sophomore before coming off the bench midway through the season and proved to be an outstanding sixth woman and instant-offense provider.

Former Corner Canyon High star Kemery Martin, a Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year, was sidelined most of the season by an injury. 

Last November, Roberts signed three high school players, including one from Utah, who she believes could contribute immediately: Naya Ojukwu of Meridian, Idaho, Judge Memorial’s Teya Sidberry and Nalani White of Mater Dei High in California.

“We’re fired up at the three signees we have coming in next year,” Roberts said in a school news release. “All three were highly recruited. We competed with some great programs (for them), and I am happy they have chosen to be Utes.”

Gylten said from the podium Sunday that the program is on an upward trajectory and she doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

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“We just play such a cool style of basketball, and it’s fun,” she said. “Even with just this representation of having March Madness for women’s basketball, I think there’s only room for growth, and I think it’s going to come in the future, so it’s really awesome.”

Much was made of how the program went 5-16 last year. Fans may have forgotten, though, that the Utes were affected by COVID-19 issues as much as any program in the state, and they were coming off a couple solid seasons the previous two years.

In 2018-19, for instance, the Utes were off to a 19-1 start before injuries ruined a promising season. They finished 20-10 overall.

“Yeah, I think we definitely turned it around, and the season was a blast,” McQueen said from the podium after playing better than any Ute in the Big Dance. “Definitely a highlight for me was the Pac-12 tournament. That was super fun, and being able to experience this and be a part of March Madness (provided motivation). We will be back.”

Older and better than ever, it would appear.