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Utah women’s basketball: No. 8 Utes crush Cal to set up Saturday’s Pac-12 championship showdown with No. 3 Stanford

Utah and Stanford were both tabbed as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament in Thursday’s latest and final bracket reveal

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Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) drives against California Golden Bears forward Peanut Tuitele (33) during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

About midway through the second quarter of No. 8 Utah’s penultimate regular-season Pac-12 game against California on Thursday night, the second-place Utes learned that first-place Stanford had held off Colorado in double overtime to clinch at least a share of the league title.

That’s was a bummer for the home team, because a Stanford loss, coupled with a Utah win, would have meant Saturday’s high noon showdown at the Huntsman Center would have been for the outright championship.

“It has just been a lot of rehab and treatment to get it feeling better and it was good enough for me to go.” — Utah star Alissa Pili on her ankle injury.

Having led by as many as 13 points in the first quarter, the Utes went through a bit of a lull in the second quarter — they later said it had nothing to do with having learned that the Cardinal had pulled off the win in Boulder — and Cal came back to tie it briefly with about two minutes remaining until the break.

But the Utes dominated the second half, and cruised to a convincing 101-76 win befitting one of the best teams (24-3, 14-3) in the country to ensure that if they win Saturday (noon, Pac-12 Networks) they will get a piece of the league crown.

“I mean, to win 14 games in this league is a big deal, and these guys deserve all the credit,” Utes coach Lynne Roberts said. “Now we have a chance to play for a championship and share it with Stanford on Saturday and we are excited about that.”

Roberts called it a “good, balanced team win,” and credited her bench for not just extending the lead in the second half after the Utes led 49-43 at the break, but allowing for starters such as Alissa Pili, Jenna Johnson, Gianna Kneepkens, Isabel Palmer and Kennady McQueen to get some much-appreciated rest with the Stanford rematch coming in fewer than 48 hours.

Still, Pili (26 points) and Johnson (21) combined for nearly half of the Utes’ points as they hit the century mark for the first time since a 100-92 win over Oregon back on Feb. 5. Remarkably, Pili was 9 of 14 from the field and 7 of 7 from the free-throw line while adding four rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes after she was a game-time decision with a sprained ankle.

“It has just been a lot of rehab and treatment to get it feeling better and it was good enough for me to go,” Pili said.

Added Roberts: “She’s a tough kid, in case you hadn’t noticed. Yeah, she is tough and battled through it. We have had a lot of kids banged up, and our athletic trainer (Christina Jones) is the best and they got them ready so they could compete.”

The Utes jumped out to a 15-2 lead, then sputtered a bit in the second quarter. Cal clawed back and got a bucket from Jayda Curry with 3:20 left in the second quarter to tie it at 35-35, but Dasia Young and Izzy Palmer hit 3-pointers and McQueen and Pili made free throws to right the Utes before halftime.

“Yeah, the start of that first quarter was great. We definitely threw the first punch, figuratively speaking, and then we just kinda relaxed defensively and you can’t do that in this league,” Roberts said. “We talked about that at halftime quite a bit.”

Curry finished with a game-high 28, but only 11 came after halftime when Young drew the defensive assignment of slowing one of the Pac-12’s best players.

More great news followed Thursday, as Utah learned it was awarded a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament in the latest, and final, bracket reveal. Stanford (15-2, 27-3) is also tabbed as a projected No. 1 seed in a regional, along with South Carolina and Indiana.

That was news to Roberts, who obviously had more important things on her mind when the bracket was revealed around 6 p.m. Thursday. Does it matter now?

“No, but I think that is a great goal, right? Like, I didn’t know that. That is cool,” she said. “That would be a great accomplishment, and obviously a great starting point to start the tournament. And I think it is something we can strive for. But matter at this point? No.”

Young, McQueen and Palmer finished with nine points each for the Utes, while former Ute and Corner Canyon star Kemery Martin chipped in 15 for the Bears in her Utah homecoming.

“I’m proud of our team,” Roberts said. “We are 24-3, and we should be confident going into Saturday.”