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From Alaska to SLC via USC: Why basketball wasn’t new Utah women’s hoops star Alissa Pili’s first love

Utes’ 6-foot-2 post player grew up in Anchorage playing every sport imaginable, but her favorite early on was football

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Utah forward Alissa Pili shoots one of two free throws that tied and gave the Utes win over the Arizona.

Utah forward Alissa Pili shoots one of two free throws that tied and gave the 10th-ranked Utes the win over the 14th-ranked Arizona 80-79 in a thriller at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

University of Utah women’s basketball fans and reporters who watched Alissa Pili sink a pair of free throws with 0.3 seconds left to give the No. 10 Utes an 80-79 win over No. 14 Arizona last Sunday marveled at how well the USC transfer handled the immense pressure.

But to Pili, the heroics were no big deal. After all, the superstar from Anchorage, Alaska, has been dealing with pressure and high expectations since she was a youngster and her father not only insisted she play football against boys, but dominate them as well.

“My dad (Billy Pili) would make me embarrass the boys every practice. He would line them up and we would go one-on-one, and I was (expected) to win those battles. Yeah, it was fun. Football was my first love, I think.” — Utah women’s basketball star Alissa Pili

“My dad (Billy Pili) would make me embarrass the boys every practice,” Alissa Pili told the Deseret News last week. “He would line them up and we would go one-on-one, and I was (expected) to win those battles. Yeah, it was fun. Football was my first love, I think.”

Pili, now a 6-foot-2 post player for the Utes, says she played football from third through eighth grade on her teams’ offensive and defensive lines, and that helped her develop the toughness and competitiveness that she now routinely displays on the basketball court.

“I was surrounded by football my whole life,” she said. “My brother played, my cousins played, so I just told my dad I wanted to play, too. I was the only girl at the time, and it was a blast.”

Pili has eight siblings — four brothers and four sisters. She’s the second-oldest, behind brother Brandon, who is a defensive lineman on USC’s football team.

And no, she’s not related to BYU football players Trajan, Keenan and Logan Pili, who are from Las Vegas and Provo.

“I get that question all the time,” she said.

She’s also asked a lot how a Polynesian family whose father was born in the tropical paradise of Hawaii ended up in freezing cold Alaska, of all places.

The answer is that her father moved there with his family when he was in middle school for more employment opportunities “and a change of scenery,” and he’s now settled in and loving it. Pili’s parents both work for the same company as logistics managers.

Becoming a basketball prodigy

Before they moved to Anchorage, the Pilis lived in Barrow (Alaska’s northernmost town) and that’s where Pili first remembers dribbling and shooting a basketball. She was around 5, she thinks.

She started playing organized basketball when she was 8, shortly after the family moved to Anchorage, and she’s been a star ever since. 

Pili’s basketball achievements at Anchorage’s Dimond High are legendary in the 49th state. She was a three-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year, a two-time National Female Athlete of the Year by MaxPreps and earned the “Pride of Alaska” award from the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

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Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili and Utah coach Lynne Roberts celebrate Utah’s victory 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

She scored more points, 2,614, than any prep basketball player in state history, while also starring in volleyball and track and finishing with 13 state titles to her name across all sports. She also participated in wrestling.

“I just hate losing,” she said. “Playing against boys who were bigger and stronger and faster sometimes just made me want to go harder, get better, in everything I did.”

Fighting on, then moving on, from USC

Pili chose USC out of high school, partly because her brother was already there, and she quickly became a force for the Trojans. She was the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2019-20 and then played two more seasons for USC.

Through 63 games over the course of three seasons, she averaged 12.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game and shot 45% from the floor. 

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Southern California forward Alissa Pili, left, shoots as Washington forward Alexis Whitfield, center, and forward Haley Van Dyke defend Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Los Angeles. Pili transferred to Utah in the offseason and has been a catalyst for the No. 8-ranked Utes this year.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

However, after averaging 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds her junior year, she hit the transfer portal, looking for a change of scenery and wanting to join a program that would give her a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. USC never made it past the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament when Pili played for the Trojans.

This is Pili’s fourth season, but her plan right now is to take advantage of the NCAA-allowed “extra year” and return to the Utes next year for a fifth season, then move on to professional basketball.

“I am pretty sure I will come back, but it hasn’t been a solidified decision yet,” she said.

Picking the Utes

The other big question Pili fields: How was Utah coach Lynne Roberts so fortunate to land Pili out of the transfer portal?

Dozens of schools contacted Pili after she entered the portal, but she quickly determined she wanted to stay in the Pac-12 and zeroed in on Utah and a few others. 

“Utah reminded me a lot of home, with just kind of the small-city feel, but also if you want to get out and do stuff, there are a lot of things to do,” she said. “There is also a big-city feel here, too, and I like that about it.”

Learning more about coach Roberts and the players returning from last year’s NCAA Tournament appearance and first-round win over Arkansas solidified her decision.

“I really liked the culture they had, and just the discipline the team had. I thought it was a really strong foundation that has been built up over the years,” she said. “I know Utah wasn’t always on top of the Pac-12, but I like the way they have built something here, from the ground up. … And just the type of coach and person coach Rob is, it just cemented my decision to come here.”

At USC, Pili had a couple of name, image and likeness (NIL) deals with Champion sports apparel and Bumble, a dating app, which have accompanied her to Utah. She said NIL opportunities, or the lack thereof, had nothing to do with her decision to join the Utes.

Utah has a teamwide NIL deal with C.W. Urban, a Utah-based residential real estate developer that Pili is grateful for, she said.

“Money is important, but it isn’t everything,” she said. “I was really just looking for a school where I could be happy in the environment and I could strive to be a better player and all that.”

A bonus: She has a cousin, Leonardo, who lives in Salt Lake City and brings his family to the games. Another bonus: “It is much warmer here than in Anchorage,” she said.

Powering the Utes to a national ranking, maybe more

With stars such as Gianna Kneepkens, Jenna Johnson and Kennady McQueen returning, Roberts knew she would have a solid team in 2022-23, and a probable Pac-12 contender. The addition of Pili has moved Utah into the national contender conversation.

She’s been that good.

“We could not guard Pili,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said Sunday after Pili’s game-winning free throws. “We did not have an answer for her. She destroyed us all night.”

Pili had a game-high 27 points against the Wildcats, on 11-of-16 shooting. It was her eighth 20-point game of the season. Teams are game-planning to stop the Alaskan Ace, to no avail.

“She is pretty steady. This is not new for her. Most transfers are not coming from the same league. The other 11 coaches know her well, too. So she is not surprising anyone,” Roberts said. “They have game-planned for her. So yeah, it is going to keep getting tougher for her, for our shooters. So we had to make some tweaks to our offense this week, to just account for some of the things teams are going to do.”

Last week, Pili was named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Midseason Watch List as one of the top 21 most outstanding women’s college basketball players in the country. She’s also on the midseason watch list for the Wooden Award.

Averaging 19.8 points per game, Pili is the third-leading scorer in the Pac-12, and No. 21 in the nation. Her shooting percentage of 63.2% leads the Pac-12 and is ninth nationally.

“We had to compete to get her,” says Roberts, who teases that when Pili was in high school, she wouldn’t return the Utes’ coach’s phone calls. “There were a lot of people that wanted her. She went through the whole process and visited places and we ended up getting her. We are just super grateful, but that is what recruiting is.”

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Utah Utes forward Naya Ojukwu (13), Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) and Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) watch the action from the bench as the Utes and Wildcats play in a thriller at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Utah won 80-79.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News