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How Utah’s women’s basketball team made program history Thursday night in Las Vegas

Sixth-seeded Utes trailed for just 56 seconds in blasting the WSU Cougars 70-59 at Mandalay Bay Events Center, will face No. 2 seed Oregon Ducks in Friday’s semifinals

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Utah players jump and celebrate a victory

Utah players celebrate a victory over Washington State in an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women’s tournament Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Las Vegas.

David Becker, Associated Press

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts says the Utes are having fun and success this season because they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Now the rest of the Pac-12 is going to have to start taking Roberts’ program seriously, because the Utes accomplished something Thursday night in Las Vegas that they’ve never done before.

Freshman Jenna Johnson scored 19 points and junior Brynna Maxwell added 11 as Utah upset No. 3 seed Washington State 70-59 at Mandalay Bay Events Center to advance to the conference tournament semifinals for the first time ever, having joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

Sixth-seeded Utah (19-10) moves on to face No. 2 seed Oregon on Friday night at 9:30 p.m. MST. The Ducks advanced with a 63-60 win over UCLA in one of Thursday’s other quarterfinals.

“I am not ready to be done, that’s for sure,” Roberts told the Pac-12 Network. “We are going to keep this thing rolling.”

Roberts, in her seventh season, worried before the game that third-seeded Wazzu had six days to prepare for the Utes, having drawn a first-round bye as one of the top four teams in conference play. But those fears did not materialize, as Utah led for all but 56 seconds.

“We are the underdogs going out, so we like that and we are going to keep going,” said senior point guard Dru Gylten.

Everything did not go swimmingly for the Utes, however. Sophomore Peyton McFarland went down grasping her right knee with nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, and did not return. A starter, McFarland averages 6.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

The 6-foot-4 forward’s size will be needed against UO’s size and strength inside. She returned to the bench in the second half and watched the rout with an ice pack on her right knee.

Utah led by as many as 24 points in the fourth quarter, 65-41, before WSU rallied in garbage time.

Tara Wallack had a career-high 16 points for Washington State, but the Cougars were held to 37% shooting and could never get their offense on track against the defense-minded Utes.

Wazzu’s Leger-Walker sisters were held to a combined 10 points on a combined 4 of 24 shooting effort by Utah defensive ace Kennady McQueen and others.

“I have fun shutting down the other team’s best player, and knowing these guys have my back if I get beat. It makes it easy knowing these guys have my back,” said McQueen, who added eight points and four rebounds.

Wallack scored the game’s first basket, but after that it was all Utes. The Utes scored a Pac-12 tournament record 29 points in the first quarter to jump out to a 16-point lead.

A 15-0 run did the trick, along with 8 of 13 shooting from deep in the first half.

“Keep your foot on the gas,” Roberts exhorted her team in the huddle at the break. “Don’t let up.”

They didn’t.

Back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers from McQueen, Gianna Kneepkens (her first and only basket of the first half) and Johnson and a driving layup from Kelsey Rees sent the Utes into halftime with a 45-25 lead.

The Utes shot 57% in the first half, while holding the Cougars to 35%.

Johnson had 13 points on 4 of 5 shooting in the first half, a night after scoring 20 in Utah’s 66-60 first-round win over Cal.

Utah cooled off offensively in the second half, but refused to let up on defense. 

Washington State opened the third quarter on a 9-2 run, but Kneepkens came alive after a slow first half and carried the Utes in the third quarter. After scoring 18 on Wednesday, the native of Duluth, Minn., had nine on Thursday.

Johanna Teder’s triple cut the Cougars’ deficit to 12 midway through the third, but Brynna Maxwell gave the Utes a lift off the bench to quell the uprising.

“I am really proud of our team,” said Maxwell, who started every game the first two years of her career, but now comes off the bench. “Our whole team did great.”

Roberts said she is having “the most fun I have had in as long as I can remember” as a coach.

“It is awesome,” she said. “It has been such a fun year. They have bought in, done everything we have asked them to do. … To see the joy on their faces, that is as good as it gets as a coach.”

No. 25-ranked Oregon defeated Utah twice in the regular season, but both games were close. The Ducks won 70-66 in Eugene on Jan. 26 and 73-65 at the Huntsman Center on Feb. 26.

“Utah looks impressive,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves told the Pac-12 Network at halftime.

If the Utes defeat the Ducks, they will play the Stanford-Colorado winner in the tournament championship game, which is scheduled for Sunday.