Utah women’s basketball upsets Oregon, advances to Pac-12 championship game
Gianna Kneepkens scores a game-high 24 points on her 19th birthday to lead the Utes to a 80-73 win in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — Utah’s women’s basketball team wasn’t just content with making it to the Pac-12 tournament semifinals for the first time in program history, apparently.
Friday night, they had bigger Ducks to fry. And now the Utes are in the Pac-12 championship game for the first time since joining the league in 2011.
Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Gianna Kneepkens celebrated her 19th birthday by scoring a game-high 24 points and Utah continued its magical run at Mandalay Events Center in Las Vegas, upsetting No. 2 seed and 25th-ranked Oregon 80-73 in a semifinal game.
“That’s the best birthday present I’ve had in all my years,” Kneepkens said.
Sixth-seeded Utah (20-10) meets top-seeded Stanford on Sunday at 4 p.m. MST for the championship and the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal, defending national champions, routed Colorado 71-45 in the first semifinal Friday.
“Incredibly proud of my team,” said coach Lynne Roberts, who broke a heel celebrating the win and had to borrow a jacket for the post-game news conference because she was soaking wet.
“Apologize for the wet dog look.”
Regardless of what happens Sunday, Utah is a lock for the Big Dance, but the big win could get them out of the 8-9 seeding range, a big deal since the first rounds of the tournament are held at top four seeds. It is the kind of win that can transform a program.
“In terms of NCAA seeding, this will help,” Roberts acknowledged.
“They got a nice team. They earned this game. I am happy for Utah. They earned this win. We did not,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who was involved in the most controversial moment of the game, picking up a technical foul after his team took a 66-65 lead with just under four minutes remaining.
Having given up the 10-point lead they started the fourth quarter with, the Utes caught a big break when sophomore guard Kennady McQueen was fouled by Nyara Sabally while attempting a 3-pointer. Not only did that send one of the Ducks’ best players to the bench with five fouls, it drew a technical foul on Graves, a Utah native.
McQueen made 4 of 5 free throws resulting from the situation to give Utah a 69-66 lead, and Oregon got no closer.
“Obviously lost my cool late,” Graves said, noting that he couldn’t comment further “because some people are protected.”
Asked what he said to draw the game-turning technical, Graves replied: “Didn’t say a thing. … There you go. That gets you a technical foul these days. … I let my emotions get to me.”
Later, Graves referred to a “gesture” he made that apparently was the reason for the T.
Utah made just one field goal in the final six minutes, but it was a huge one. Kneepkens got free for a layup with 2:44 left to give Utah a 72-66 lead. Oregon got no closer than six after that.
“I have the utmost confidence in her — she’s fearless,” Roberts said of Kneepkens, who was 9 of 10 from the free-throw line.
Don’t blame the Ducks (20-11) if they don’t want to see a Utah team in Las Vegas for another decade or so, after the Utes’ football team routed Oregon last year in the Pac-12 football championship game.
Friday’s game started as if Oregon would return the favor.
Kneepkens scored the game’s first five points and the Utes got off to a decent start, taking a 7-2 lead. Oregon answered with a 14-0 run to take a 25-14 lead at the end of the first quarter. For a few brief moments, it appeared the big stage was too much for the young Utes.
“Believing in each other really helps a lot,” Kneepkens said.
Trailing 37-32 at halftime, the Utes played some of their best basketball of the season to open the third quarter, especially at the defensive end.
Kneepkens made two 3-pointers in the quarter, while Johnson and McQueen had one apiece. The Utes went on a 16-1 run, thanks to stifling defense.
Oregon made just one field goal in the third quarter, and finished the quarter missing its last 10 shots.
“I think we lost a little bit of our intensity in that third quarter,” Graves said.
Utah’s unsung hero was Australian Kelsey Rees, who had 14 points and eight rebounds while battling Oregon’s superior height the entire night.
She got the extra minutes because starting post player Peyton McFarland didn’t play.
McFarland sustained a knee injury in the quarterfinal win over Washington State and was on crutches Friday night. Roberts said the Boise, Idaho, product won’t play Sunday and will get imaging on her knee when the team returns to Salt Lake City next week.
Actually, it would be hard to find a Ute who didn’t play well. Jenna Johnson chipped in 13 points and four rebounds before fouling out, while point guard Dru Gylten directed the offense and didn’t commit a turnover in 30 minutes. She tweaked an ankle late in the game, but returned.
McQueen not only hit the big free throws — staying at the stripe after making the three free throws from the 3-pointer foul — but also put the defensive clamps on Oregon guards Te-Hina Paopao, Sydney Parrish and Endyia Rogers, who combined to go 15 of 43.
“They never lost faith in me,” McQueen said of her teammates after a 3 of 10 shooting night.
Brynna Maxwell also nailed a huge 3-pointer in the third quarter when the Utes essentially won the game.
“We’ve been on them about what it takes to win in March,” Roberts said.
On an unforgettable Friday night in Las Vegas, they showed their coaches they were listening.