The same day the University of Utah honored the best women’s basketball coaches and players in its nearly 50-year history, Alissa Pili made yet another propositon that she might eventually be added to the list.
Pili, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, made the game-tying 3-pointer and then drove the lane for the winning layup in the final seconds as the Utes outlasted UCLA 71-69 in a battle of nationally ranked Pac-12 teams at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Sunday.
Pili scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as the ninth-ranked Utes celebrated “Alumni Night” and improved to 18-2 overall. They also moved to 8-2 in league play, good enough for sole possession of second place with eight games remaining.
Utah trailed for much of the game, but ended on a 7-0 run to send the nearly 4,000 fans home happy. Issy Palmer added 14 points and five assists for the Utes, while Dasia Young chipped in 11 off the bench.
The win was Utah’s third straight and marked the fifth time already the Utes have grabbed a league win in a contest that could have gone either way.
“What a crazy game,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “It’s kind of like we woke up and started playing with the intensity needed to beat UCLA. Everything was hard. It was like we kind of had square wheels.”
Emily Bessoir scored a career-high 17 points, which included five 3-pointers, to lead UCLA (17-5, 6-4), but the Bruins lost their second straight one-possession game, having fell to Colorado 73-70 in overtime Friday.
“We still have some mental errors we got to take care of,” UCLA coach Cori Chase said. “You can’t give away possessions and win at the highest levels.”
Chase, however, might have been guilty of her own mental error. The Bruins’ defense had frustrated Utah all afternoon, holding three of their primary 3-point shooters (Gianna Kneepkens, Kennady McQueen and Jenna Johnson) to a combined 1 of 11 from beyond the arc.
The only reason the Utes stayed close was due to the hustle and momentum created by Palmer and Young, as well as freshman Teya Sidberry.
UCLA led 69-64 on a pair of free throws by Charity Osborne with 1:58 left, but Kneepkens came downcourt and made two charity shots, McQueen then stole the ball and both coaches decided to roll the dice with their players on the court, rather than call a timeout to discuss strategy.
“When you recruit good players, you have them go out and play,” Roberts said.
The 6-foot-2 Pili had been bothered all game by UCLA’s physical play underneath, so she came to the perimeter, welcomed a pass from Kneepkens, faced the basket and connected on her only 3-point attempt of the game.
CLUTCH— Utah Women’s Basketball (@UTAHWBB) January 29, 2023
That's it. That's the tweet. @alissa_pili #GoUtes
📺 Pac-12 Network
UCLA took a quick timeout with 33 seconds left and, instead of waiting for the last shot, drew up a play, and the 5-foot-11 Gabriela Jacquez took the ball to the basket at Palmer, who was probably the smallest player on the court (5-foot-9).
“I just remembered how I used to play (defense) against my brother and my dad,” Palmer said.
Jacquez’s shot missed and Palmer rebounded as the crowd erupted.
The arena got even louder 20 seconds later, when Pili took a pass from Young and was again decorated as the game’s hero with a driving layup.
ALISSA PILI LADIES AND GENTLEMEN#GoUtes— Utah Women’s Basketball (@UTAHWBB) January 29, 2023
📺 Pac-12 Network
Pili has already earned quite a few team MVP awards in her first season since transferring from Southern Cal. She had to be gratified even further after the Utes defeated her former team, and then edged her former rival in successive games.
“I knew they would be playing me close after I hit that 3-pointer,” Pili said, “so I just drove around her and got to the basket.”
Roberts again noted that it was a team-oriented win. While the Utes shot just 38% from the field, and made only 7 of 26 3-pointers, they were 18 of 19 from the free-throw line. The win was also their second straight over UCLA, a welcomed feat after they had dropped 18 straight going back to 2009.
“We’ve come a long way, and we’re not finished yet,” Roberts said.