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Alissa Pili leads the way against her former team, Kennady McQueen finishes strong as No. 9 Utah beats USC

Utes continue their strong play with win over the Trojans. Next up is No. 8 UCLA on Sunday.

SHARE Alissa Pili leads the way against her former team, Kennady McQueen finishes strong as No. 9 Utah beats USC
Utah’s women’s basketball team huddles during game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Utah’s women’s basketball team huddles during game against USC at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Utah’s Alissa Pili welcomed her former team to the Huntsman Center Friday night, but she also welcomed the help from her new teammates to subdue the USC Trojans, 83-73.

Pili scored a game-high 21 points and seemed relieved afterward as the ninth-ranked Utes remained undefeated at home and in contention for the Pac-12 regular-season title.

“Great game,” coach Lynne Roberts said afterward.

She let the game do the talking.

Most of the pregame talk was how Pili would react to playing against the school where she spent the last three seasons. Roberts said she really didn’t speak to her star player much about that, and the Utes led most of the way.

Still confident from last year’s run to the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament, the Utes built a 20-point lead Friday and then held on thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from Kennady McQueen — the last one with 52 seconds left that finally let the season-high crowd of 3,251 cheer — and exhale.

“It’s hard to be up and continue to have that killer instinct and that’s part of our development,” said Roberts. “We just kind of took our foot off the gas, and offensively, we were sputtering.”

McQueen finished with 17 points and Gianna Kneepkens added 16. McQueen was especially deadly from the perimeter, where she made 5 of 8 shots from long range.

“They started cutting into the lead and we just found a way to win,” said McQueen, who was dealing with injury problems last week.

“That’s a testament to learning from last year, and the locker room is really confident right now. We know who we are and we know our strengths and we’re getting better at our weaknesses.”

Added depth, resiliency and experience from last year’s impressive finish are definitely strengths, and they are still spurring the Utes toward another exciting year as March Madness nears.

Utah has also been helped by the success of travel partner Colorado, which edged eighth-ranked UCLA 73-70 in overtime Friday night; the two Rocky Mountain squads are combining to make this road swing the most difficult in the league.

UCLA, of course, visits the Huntsman Center Sunday for a noon contest, and Roberts hopes Utah’s good fortune continues — in front of an even bigger crowd.

“We’re playing at a level that makes people really enjoy watching us,” she said.

That was true for most of the first half Friday, when Pili, McQueen and Kneepkens outplayed their more athletic counterparts and led 49-33.

The Utes also kept their composure when Southern Cal scored on its first six possessions of the second half and cut the margin to 10 points.

Utah’s “Big Three” combined with extra efforts by Kelsey Rees, Jenna Johnson and Dasia Young, eventually robbing USC of its swagger when the score reached 69-49.

But things changed as the third quarter ended when Utes’ point guard Issy Palmer left the game with an apparent ankle injury.

She was replaced by Ines Vieira, who made 4 of 4 free throws in the final period, but Utah’s offense was not as fluid and USC rallied behind Rayah Marshall and Destiny Middleton (15 points apiece).

The Trojans had a chance to get closer, but had a basket removed due to a close shot clock violation.

Pili added a free throw, and Vieira forced a turnover, which changed the game’s momentum, and McQueen was left open from beyond the arc and buried the shot to help Utah improve to 9-0 at the Huntsman Center.