LAS VEGAS — The Pac-12 women’s basketball world already knew about Alissa Pili before she transferred to the University of Utah ahead of the 2022-23 season — she had been the league’s freshman of the year at USC in 2020, after all.

The now-senior added to her accolades last year, when Pili earned Pac-12 Player of the Year honors while leading the Utes to the Sweet 16, a 27-5 record and a regular-season conference co-championship title.

She led the league in scoring and field goal percentage, averaging 20.7 points while shooting 59% from the floor.

Now, the Utes are picked to win the conference this season, with a target on the back of both Lynne Roberts’ program and her star forward.

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During Pac-12 basketball media days last month in Las Vegas, the Deseret News asked several frontcourt standouts from around the league what it’s like defending the 6-foot-2 power forward.

Just asking that question often brought an exasperated look or sigh from her Pac-12 peers.

Arizona forward Esmery Martinez faced Pili twice last season, with the Utes winning a thriller in Salt Lake City — Pili scored the game-winning free throws with 0.3 seconds remaining. 

The Wildcats handed Utah one of its rare losses last season when it visited Tucson later in the year.

“She’s tough. She’s a great player that knows how to use her body. She’s hard to guard,” said Martinez, who joined Pili on this year’s Pac-12 preseason all-conference team. “She gave me a very hard time last year twice. It’s great playing against her; I can learn from her, too.” 

Colorado center Quay Miller, another preseason all-conference honoree, expressed a similar sentiment — that playing against Pili helps to elevate her game. 

Like Martinez, Miller was on both the winning end and losing end against Pili and the Utes last year — the schools split a pair of matchups, with each team winning at home.

“When I see her, it’s hard to imagine — she’s nice here, she’s sweet to talk to, but then on the court it’s a different ball game. No one is getting in her way of being successful,” Miller said of Pili.

“... I love Alissa’s game and I think she’s an amazing player. I like playing against her because I know I’m getting better for sure.”

“Versatility is the biggest thing I can think of. She is not the tallest post but with what she has, she can do a lot of damage. She’s proven that. She’s a great competitor and an amazing player.” — Oregon State’s Timea Gardiner on Alissa Pili

Oregon State, which finished near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings a year ago, gave the Utes a close matchup in early February, when Utah went on the road and prevailed in overtime in the two teams’ lone matchup last season.

Pili scored 23 points that night, including a pair of critical late free throws in the extra session to give the Utes a three-point lead in an eventual 75-73 win.

Two Beavers frontcourt players who were freshmen last season got their first experience facing Pili.

“She gets shots up. I’m not even sure how they get off but she finds a way to do it,” said Oregon State’s Raegan Beers, another preseason all-conference honoree.

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Timea Gardiner, who prepped at Utah’s Fremont High and missed half of her freshman season at OSU because of a blood clot scare, was around for the Utah game.

“Versatility is the biggest thing I can think of. She is not the tallest post but with what she has, she can do a lot of damage,” Gardiner said. “She’s proven that. She’s a great competitor and an amazing player.”

Pac-12 play begins for No. 5 Utah in a late December matchup against Miller and Colorado — before that, the Utes will play a 12-game nonconference schedule that includes a pair of road contests against No. 19 Baylor (Nov. 14) and No. 6 South Carolina (Dec. 10).

First things first, though, for Pili and the Utes — they open their season in front of the home crowd on Monday, with a 4 p.m. MST tipoff against Mississippi Valley State at the Huntsman Center in the season opener.

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili scored a season-high 30 points in a win at Oregon.
Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili drives the ball during a game at the Huntsman Center in Sandy on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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