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Utah’s Top 15 matchup with Arizona came down to the final whistle. How the Utes prevailed

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The University of Utah’s 10th-ranked women’s basketball team celebrates their win over the 14th-ranked Arizona Wildcats 80-79 in a thriller at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023.

The University of Utah’s 10th-ranked women’s basketball team celebrates their win over the 14th-ranked Arizona Wildcats 80-79 in a thriller at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It would have been difficult to add any more drama to the two-hour basketball game Sunday between the University of Utah and Arizona women’s basketball teams.

But in a matchup involving two nationally ranked squads, Alissa Pili made two free throws with 0.3 seconds left to lift the Utes to an 80-79 win in a Pac-12 Conference game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

“That was really fun. What a great game,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts. “It was just back-and-forth the whole time. We answered their runs, they answered our runs. I just love that we didn’t panic.”

Both teams certainly had their chances. The 14th-ranked Wildcats got off to a fast start, but Utah recovered and eventually built an 8-point lead. The game was tied nine times in the fourth quarter, but Arizona eventually had three players foul out, and Pili and Gianna Kneepkens made their big plays count the most as the 10th-ranked Utes improved to 15-1 overall and 5-1 in league.

Pili finished with a game-high 27 points on 11 of 16 shooting. She also made 5 of 7 free throws. Pili’s biggest impact on the game, however, didn’t happen until the Utes made an inbounds-pass blunder that helped Arizona take a 79-78 lead with 1.6 seconds left.

While the home crowd gasped in disbelief how this game got away, Utah didn’t give up and prepared to gain possession in front of its own bench after a series of timeouts by both teams.

“We work on end-of-game situations all the time,” said Roberts. “We’ve run that before in practice. And Alissa just made a heck of a play.”

Kneepkens lofted the ball toward Pili on the opposite side of the basket, and the 6-foot-2 junior somehow gathered the ball between two taller defenders. Despite her unique ability to get shots off in traffic, the ball was deflected off the backboard, but the officials ruled she was fouled, and then spent several minutes confirming their call using television instant replay.

“That’s a tough call,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes on her post-game radio interview. “I have to look at the film but I don’t think (the block) could’ve been cleaner.

“To lose in that manner is very upsetting. Our girls played hard. They played with heart. They did everything I asked them today.”

Pili, an 80% free-throw shooter, still had to make both charity shots to seal the win. Both were flawless.

“I knew I had to keep my composure, and act like the game wasn’t on the line (and think it’s) just another day,” she said.

“It was a big game, a big moment. I just did everything I could to be as smart as I could.”

Pili’s free throws were the climax of several big plays — by both teams. Arizona’s Paris Clark could have been the hero for stealing the previous inbounds pass. She then dribbled downcourt and made a layup. 

Prior to that, Kneepkens made the third of three straight drives to the basket. Her final shot, which gave her 20 points, also ended the day for Arizona’s Cate Reese, who had season-high 25 points and 10 rebounds, but fouled out with 37 seconds left.

Jade Loville added 17 points, including three 3-pointers.

Izzy Palmer had 10 points for Utah, which also got a boost from former North Summit High standout Kennedy McQueen, who had six points and provided a momentum boost after being seen in a walking boot a few days earlier.

Roberts said every effort was necessary after the Utes suffered their first defeat 10 days ago at Colorado, and had too much time to think about it when Friday’s game against Arizona State was cancelled.

The Utes play at second-ranked Stanford next Friday.