LAS VEGAS — These are halcyon days for the University of Utah’s women’s basketball program.

Seventh-year coach Lynne Roberts’ Utes have knocked off Cal, Washington State and Oregon as the No. 6 seed in the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.

The latter two wins could be classified as legitimate upsets, seeing as how WSU was a No. 3 seed and Oregon a No. 2 seed and nationally ranked at times this season.

“At every turn they’ve been fearless,” Roberts said late Friday night after the Utes stunned the Ducks 80-73 behind 24 points from blossoming superstar freshman Gianna Kneepkens.

“This team plays pretty well when they’re loose and confident. The locker room has never been that serious of a place.”

“At every turn they’ve been fearless. This team plays pretty well when they’re loose and confident. The locker room has never been that serious of a place.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts.

As has been well-documented, Utah (20-10) has moved into uncharted territory having never before advanced to the semifinals, let alone the championship, in the Pac-12 tournament.

Now the task gets even taller.

The Utes face No. 2 Stanford, the defending Pac-12 and national champions, on Sunday in the title game. Tipoff is at 4 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by ESPN2. It is easily the biggest non-NCAA tournament game in program history.

The Cardinal (27-3) blasted Colorado 71-45 in Friday’s other semifinal and have won 19 straight games.

Stanford defeated Utah 83-73 at the Huntsman Center on Jan. 16 and 91-64 at Stanford on Feb. 11.

Roberts jokingly asked for advice on beating the Cardinal during Friday’s postgame news conference, and admitted that the Utes had “no idea” what they were going to do with their “day off” on Saturday.

“We will rest, get healthy, eat, recover, eat some more,” she said. “… We will (get treatment) like crazy, get off our feet and game plan.”

Consensus among reporters who cover Pac-12 women’s basketball on a daily basis is that the Utes have a shot if they can stay hot from 3-point range as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country.

Utah has a puncher’s chance, the theory goes.

Roberts said maintaining that fearless attitude will be a key against the Cardinal on Sunday.

“That’s been a key to our success all year,” she said, “and nothing changes. We’ve played Stanford twice.

“That game at our place went down to the wire, and then they kicked us pretty good at their place, so those were two learning experiences that we will pull from.”

Against Oregon Friday, the Utes won despite not shooting all that well from beyond the arc. They finished 9 of 31 from deep, as Jenna Johnson was 1 of 2 before fouling out, Kneepkens was 3 of 7, Kennady McQueen was 2 of 9 and Brynna Maxwell was 2 of 7.

On Sunday, Utah will be without forward Peyton McFarland, who injured her knee in the 70-59 win over Wazzu on Thursday.

Kelsey Rees stepped up in McFarland’s absence against Oregon, scoring a career-high 14 points, including 6 of 8 from the free-throw line.

“Our team and staff respects the heck out of Stanford,” Roberts said. “We know how talented they are. They’re the reigning national champions, but I’m not fearful of the game. I’m not intimidated, oh no.”

Whatever happens Sunday, it will complete a remarkable turnaround for a program that went 5-16 last year when COVID-19 wreaked havoc on their schedule. The Utes were picked to finish 10th in preseason Pac-12 polls.

McQueen said the turnaround started last summer.

“How we ran our practices and skill things, you could just tell there was a different feeling,” she said. “Like, we weren’t going to have another year like last year, and that was very clear.

“So just bringing in our awesome freshmen and us returners, we were determined to not let that happen again.”

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With a NET ranking of 25, Utah has been a lock for the NCAA Tournament for a couple weeks now, but a win over a Stanford team with a NET ranking of 3 might just get the Utes off the dreaded 8-9 seeding range.

For instance, in Charlie Creme’s bracketology projections for ESPN, updated Saturday, Utah is a No. 8 seed meeting No. 9 seed South Florida in Columbia, South Carolina, in the first round.

The bad news is the Utes would face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the second round on the Gamecocks’ home floor if Creme’s projections are accurate.

“I think in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding, this will really help,” Roberts said. “We want to be as high a seed as we can be.”

Roberts added that the exposure Sunday’s nationally televised game can give Utah’s program is priceless.

“These are great moments for our program, putting us on the national map, which has been my goal since I took the job here,” she said.

“And we’ve been knocking on the door of that. I think it is just validity, kind of validation, that we’re a legit program.”

Halcyon days, indeed.

Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Championship

No. 6 Utah (20-10) vs. No. 1 Stanford (27-3)

Sunday, 4 p.m. MST

At Michelob Ultra Arena, Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas


Radio: ESPN AM 700