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5 storylines to follow when No. 12 Utah women’s basketball hosts BYU

The Utes and Cougars — 2 teams who are off to strong starts to the season — renew their longstanding rivalry Saturday

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Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) goes to the hoop during a game against the BYU Cougars at the Marriott Center in 2022.

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) goes to the hoop during a game against the BYU Cougars at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Pili and the Utes beat the Cougars last year in Provo and are looking to build a winning streak in the series.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For Utah, it is a chance to be challenged and build a winning streak in a longstanding rivalry.

For BYU, it’s an opportunity to face a top national program.

The Utes and Cougars will face each other for the 111th time in women’s basketball on Saturday (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network), as a pair of 6-1 squads renew a rivalry that will become a conference matchup next season when the Utes join the Big 12.

Before that happens, though, Utah and BYU will meet at the Huntsman Center. The Utes march into the game as the No. 12 team in the country, while the Cougars are off to a strong start in their own right.

What should fans be looking for in the game?

The star forwards

The Utes and Cougars both feature a star power forward. For Utah, it’s reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili, and for BYU, it’s double-double producer Lauren Gustin.

Pili is averaging 22.1 points per game this season, 11th nationally, and her 74% field goal percentage is even better, at No. 4 in the country.

Gustin leads the country in rebounds, averaging 14.6 per game, and is BYU’s top scorer (16.3 ppg).

When Utah beat BYU 76-59 last season in Provo, Pili had a game-high 28 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal. 

Gustin scored 18 points to go along with 15 rebounds, one assist, one steal and a blocked shot.

The two will figure to be the focus again when the teams play Saturday.

A Boston reunion in Salt Lake City

This year’s matchup features two former college teammates who are getting their first experience of the rivalry from opposing sidelines.

BYU guard Lauren Davenport and Utah forward Samantha Crispe played together at Boston U. last season. Davenport was in her second season with the Terriers, while Crispe was a freshman.

Davenport has started every game for BYU this season and is averaging 4.7 points and 3.6 assists for the Cougars, while Crispe is coming off the bench for Utah and averaging 3.9 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.

Both players are familiar with the Wasatch Front — Davenport grew up in Idaho Falls, while Crispe hails from Castle Pines, Colorado — but are getting their first taste of the BYU-Utah rivalry.

“I’m so excited, to be honest,” Davenport said of facing her former teammate. “Me and her were super close in Boston and we basically entered the portal together, then we committed basically together.

“Being this close and having an opportunity to play against each other, to see each other again, I think it’s going to be super fun.”

Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) celebrates after a three point shot as Utah and BYU women compete in a basketball game.

Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) celebrates after a 3-point shot as Utah and BYU women compete in a basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s experienced vets vs. BYU’s freshmen phenoms

The Utes have the experience factor in their favor. Utah, which advanced to the Sweet 16 last year, returns all five starters, though guard Isabel Palmer (who is averaging 14.0 points per game) is out with an injury and there’s no clear timetable for her return.

Gianna Kneepkens, who is averaging 17.9 points per game, is the top 3-point shooter on a team full of shooters — she’s made 24 from distance for a Utes squad that leads the country in scoring, averaging 100.7 points per contest.

Kneepkens is no stranger to strong performances against BYU, as she scored 29 points against the Cougars as a freshman two years ago and 18 in the win last year.

Jenna Johnson (9.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Kennady McQueen (7.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.3 apg) also return, and Inês Vieira (8.4 ppg, 7.0 apg) is, not surprisingly, stepping up in Palmer’s absence.

BYU, meanwhile, has a pair of freshmen making big contributions for a team that has seven newcomers.

Guard Kailey Woolston is averaging 15.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and has also hit a team-high 24 3-pointers, tied with Kneepkens for 11th nationally in 3-pointers made this season.

Fellow guard Amari Whiting is averaging 11.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Utah has its own freshman standout

Those won’t be the only freshmen who could make an impact, however.

Utah’s Reese Ross has turned into a consistent contributor in the season’s early going. She is averaging 22.6 minutes per game and is the Utes’ fourth double-digit scorer (10.7 ppg) while also grabbing 6.4 rebounds per contest from her small forward position.

While she isn’t a freshman, another newcomer to the rivalry is Wisconsin transfer guard Maty Wilke. After a preseason injury slowed her acclimation into the Utah system, she is coming on strong and has started to make a presence coming off the bench.

The difficulty of Utah’s nonconference schedule jumps up a notch

Through the season’s first seven games, the Utes have easily cruised to victory over six overmatched opponents and lost in their one matchup against a ranked opponent — an 84-77 loss at then-No. 21 Baylor.

Saturday’s game starts a key stretch for Utah before conference plays begins at the end of December. Over the next three games, the Utes will face BYU (6-1) at home, St. Joseph’s (6-0) on the road and No. 1 South Carolina (6-0) in a neutral-site matchup.

“We play BYU on Saturday and we’re not going to look too far ahead. … That game always brings out the best in both teams, in terms of competitiveness and intensity. Both teams want to beat each other. It makes for a fun game.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts

Combined, those three teams are 18-1 on the season so far, with the Cougars’ most recent game — when they fell at Wyoming — accounting for the only loss.

BYU beat Utah 85-80 in the last time the two teams met in Salt Lake City two years ago.

For the Cougars, this game represents their toughest contest in nonconference play before they kick off Big 12 action in just under a month.

“This is kind of the teeth of our nonconference (schedule) coming up this next week and a half and we’re excited about it. I think we’re not naive to the challenge but the point of these preseason games is to learn about yourself and I think we’re continuing to do that,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts told reporters Tuesday.

“But we play BYU on Saturday and we’re not going to look too far ahead. … That game always brings out the best in both teams in terms of competitiveness and intensity. Both teams want to beat each other. It makes for a fun game.”