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Freshmen stars lead Utah past Cal in Pac-12 women’s tournament first-round game

Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson combine for 38 points as No. 6 seed Utah advances to quarterfinals for second time in three years

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Utah’s Peyton McFarland (42) grabs a rebound over California’s Mia Mastrov (21) and Ugonne Onyiah, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the first round of the Pac-12 women’s tournament Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Las Vegas.

John Locher, AP

Utah’s fabulous freshmen — Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson — served notice late Wednesday night that the Runnin’ Utes will not be an easy out in the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament, either this year or years to come.

The due from Minnesota combined to score 38 points and helped Utah hold off California 66-60 in a first-round game in Las Vegas as all the favorites won Thursday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

A day after being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year by the league’s coaches, Kneepkens had 20 points and five rebounds, while Johnson added 18 points, three rebounds and three assists.

“It was good to win,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts, whose program advanced to the quarterfinals for the second time in three years. “Cal played really well. They defended us tough. They took away a lot of the stuff that we are used to getting. Credit to them.”

Utah (18-10) will meet No. 3 seed Washington State (19-9) at 9:30 p.m. MST Thursday night in a quarterfinal game. The Cougars, who drew a first-round bye, have won five of their last six games.

The Utes are also fairly hot, having won three of their last four.

This was a game the Utes had to have, and they got it, thanks to the play of the freshmen and the defense of sophomore Kennady McQueen. The Henefer native held the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Cal’s Jayda Curry, to 16 points on 6 of 18 shooting.

“We knew we had to focus on her, and if we communicated we would be fine doing that,” Kneepkens told the Pac-12 Network after the game.

McQueen added 11 points and four rebounds as Utah used 13 offensive rebounds to get a 20-7 advantage in second-chance points. The game was billed as a duel between Kneepkens and Curry, after Curry won the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in the media voting. Give this one to Kneepkens, who was 9 of 13 from the floor.

“What I have said all year is they are talented, but they never seem to shy away from the moment,” Roberts said of Kneepkens and Johnson. “They are fearless and they are talented. That’s a deadly combination, especially from freshmen. And sometimes you don’t know any better when you are a freshman”

Utah led 31-25 at halftime and was in control, only to watch Cal score 20 points in the third quarter to take a 45-44 lead into the fourth.

Pac-12 Network cameras showed Roberts urging her team in the huddle during that break, telling them, “We’re the better team, but we gotta go.”

That they did.

“I thought in that third quarter we were just kinda tentative and they were in control of the game a little bit,” Roberts said. “We just needed to play harder, tougher, smarter, take it to them, play with some confidence that our team has earned. So, ‘Let’s not play scared,’ I said, and they responded really well.”

Dasia Young hit a 3-pointer — one of Utah’s six 3-pointers, which is below its average of nine per game — to help the Utes regain the lead, and McQueen added another.

After Cal tied it at 56-56 with three and a half minutes left, Johnson simply took over. She made three straight inside buckets, and Utah held on from there.

“Those guys, they are going to have special careers here, that’s for sure,” Roberts said.

With a No. 27 ranking in the NET rankings entering the conference tournament, Utah felt good about its chances to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team for the first time since 2011. The Utes are seen as a No. 9 seed in ESPN’s latest bracketology projections.

But a loss to the No. 11 seed in the tournament could have been troublesome.

Trouble avoided.

“It was a lot of fun,” Kneepkens said. “They are a good team and we knew we had to stick to our principles, because everyone is fighting for the same thing right now, so just sticking to our principles and doing the right thing all the time got us the win.”

Outside shots weren’t falling in the first half like they usually do for the Utes, so they went inside, with positive results.

Johnson scored 11 of her points in the first half and Peyton McFarland added six. The lead would have been bigger, but Kneepkens’ floater just missed beating the buzzer. 

Curry had eight points in the first half for the Bears, but was 4 of 9 from the field and also picked up two fouls — both on offensive charges. Dru Gylten drew two offensive fouls in the first half, Johnson one. Gylten added a game-high six assists.