University of Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts, in her eighth season at the helm, has been asked dozens, if not hundreds, of times the past few months for the secret to her program’s rather sudden success.

“This is my 21st year as a head coach, and I have learned by making mistakes, obviously. And what I have learned and landed on is I am only going to recruit quality human beings. Leopards don’t change their spots.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts

After all, just two years ago the Utes went 4-15 in the Pac-12, 5-16 overall, and finished 10th in the league. Now they are the league’s co-champions in the regular season after Saturday’s “watershed moment,” in Roberts’ words, that 84-78 win over perennial national power Stanford that made the Utes the darlings of Salt Lake City this winter, rivaling the gymnastics’ team’s popularity on the Hill.

Of course, the obvious answer is Alissa Pili, the 6-foot-2 transfer from USC who has taken a team that was already really good and made it a bona fide national championship contender. The junior from Anchorage, Alaska, joined a squad that went 21-12 last year, made it to the Pac-12 tournament championship game, and routed Arkansas 92-69 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling 78-56 to Texas in Austin last March.

Pili’s impact has been undeniable, and with 20.6 scoring and 5.5 rebounding averages she’s obviously in the running for all kinds of national awards as Utah’s dream season continues Thursday (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks) against either California or Washington State in a Pac-12 quarterfinal game in Las Vegas.

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But this is far more than a one-woman team, as the Cardinal learned in relinquishing a share of the league title. 

Sophomore Gianna Kneepkens broke out of a mild slump to score 28 points on 7-of-13 shooting — 5 of 9 from 3-point range — while hometown hero Kennady McQueen became the first player in Pac-12 play since Oregon State’s Earlysia Marchbanks in 2012 to have 10 or more points, five or more rebounds, four or more assists and six or more steals without committing a single turnover, according to @ENFP_Hoops.

Pili did not have one of her better games — 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting — but teammates such as Jenna Johnson (nine points), Issy Palmer (eight points) and Dasia Young (six points) picked up the slack, as they have done all season.

Utes on the air

Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal

No. 3 Utah (25-3)
vs. California/Washington State
Thursday, 7 p.m. MST
At Michelob Ultra Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700

It is a standout team from top to bottom, with no apparent weaknesses. Reserves Young, Lani White, Kelsey Rees, Ines Vieira, Peyton McFarland, Teya Sidberry and Naya Ojukwu could start for almost any other team in the country.

The No. 3-ranked Utes (25-3, 15-3), their highest ranking in program history, are that good — and that deep. And they are fairly young — with no seniors on the roster. It appears this thing has been built to last.

Here’s more on how the Utes — who are projected to receive a No. 1 seed for March Madness when the women’s tournament bracket is released a week from Sunday — were built:

The power of Pili

After Utah walloped Cal 101-76 at the Huntsman Center last Thursday, Cal coach Charmin Smith marveled at what Roberts and her staff have done the past two years. Roberts was 91-87 her first six years in Salt Lake City, with no appearances in the Big Dance, three NIT appearances and only three seasons with 18 or more wins.

That’s a solid record given the quality of competition in the Pac-12, but nothing to get excited about. That all changed last year, of course.

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) moves around Arizona Wildcats forward Esmery Martinez (12) on her way to the hoop.
Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili moves around Arizona forward Esmery Martinez on her way to the basket at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Utah won 80-79. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I think they added the right pieces,” Smith said. “This is a team that is highly skilled. All their players on the floor can score the basketball. And that is really hard to guard, at any level.”

Smith said most teams, even in the Pac-12, have a player or two that you can sag off defensively. But not these Utes.

“I think Pili might be one of their top 3-point shooters, in addition to (their best post player),” Smith continued. “They just have multiple weapons, and they are really talented offensively.”

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No question, Pili put the program over the top, said Smith, a former Stanford and WNBA player who became the Bears’ head coach in 2019.

In essence, the Utes added a ringer.

“I think Pili is responsible for a lot of this jump, but none of us really knew what Pili was going to be for Utah,” Smith said. “I think Lynne has done a great job of getting the most out of her, and it has made them a top-10 team.”

Indeed, Pili was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year for the Trojans in 2019-20, averaging 16.3 points per game, and then dropped off a bit her second and third seasons due to injuries, academic issues, and other circumstances.

She told the Deseret News in January she entered the transfer portal looking for a fresh start, and Utah welcomed her with open arms, beating dozens of suitors for her services because the place reminded her of her “small-city home” in Alaska, but had the “big city-feel” as well.

She said neither NIL opportunities nor Utah’s reputation as a program on the rise under Roberts were big factors in her decision to leave Los Angeles for Salt Lake City.

“It was more about the kind of program it was, and it seemed like a perfect fit for me,” Pili said last week. “Even if they hadn’t had a breakout season like last year, I think I still would have felt the same way just because of how consistent they were. Everybody here is true to themselves and we are who we say we are and that was pretty much the reason why I made my decision.”

Small-town roots, big-time heart

Watch any Utah game, and it quickly becomes apparent that winning just means more to “Lightning” McQueen, who plays as hard as any player in the state — male or female — even though a lingering foot injury has hampered the product of small-town Utah (Henefer) and North Summit High. McQueen is one of only two Utahns on the roster, joining Sidberry, a local who scored 2,534 points at Judge Memorial, the most points in state history.

Roberts has acknowledged she took a chance on the small-school phenom, and McQueen — whose mother Melanee (Brooks) McQueen played for the Utes from 1988-91 — has delivered. 

Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen shoots during game against USC at the Huntsman Center in Sandy on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

In many ways, she’s the straw that stirs the drink.

Kennady McQueen said she knew the program was on its way up, and gaining popularity around town, when fellow students started recognizing her on campus.

“They say, ‘Hey, McQueen, you are on the women’s team.’ It is awesome to see people recognize us and start caring about women’s basketball,” she said. “Last year, we got some crowds to some games. But this year, Salt Lake City is really showing up and it has been fun to see.”

An announced crowd of 9,611 watched the Utes beat Stanford. Utah will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament next month at the Huntsman Center. Will fans return knowing ticket prices will be significantly higher? It is a sure bet the McQueen family of Summit County will be there.

As she’s built the program, Roberts has stressed that the community has got to get more involved and get behind the team, much as Arizona has done in establishing a true home-court advantage.

There are some built-in disadvantages — such as Sunday games in a religious community and the fact that the state simply does not produce a lot of Division I-caliber female basketball players. Volleyball seems to be the sport of choice for the state’s tall female athletes.

But getting the Utah-born McQueen as a cornerstone of the rebuild has been a step in the right direction.

McQueen, Boise’s McFarland, and Rees and Palmer of Australia are the only members of that 2020-21 team that won just five games who are still on the team. Corner Canyon’s Kemery Martin, Brynna Maxwell of Gig Harbor, Washington, and Dru Gylten of South Dakota were guards on that team, but have since transferred to Cal (Martin), Gonzaga (Maxwell) and South Dakota State (Gylten), respectively.

For what it is worth, the three transfers have mostly started for their new teams, and Martin (10.9 ppg.) and Maxwell (13.9) are among their teams’ best players.

A magical pair from Minnesota

On Nov. 10, 2020, Roberts announced the signings of what she called “a talented duo from Minnesota,” but the news was met with little fanfare in Utah, and since the aforementioned Maxwell and Martin were returning from a team that upset Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament the previous March, not many figured the pair would have much of an impact.

Boy, were they wrong.

The AAU ball teammates have been forces as their sophomore years wind down, and have become key components to a team that likes to run, gun and fire off 3-pointers as much as any team in the country, which is Roberts’ preferred style.

Johnson was an ESPN Top 50 recruit from Wayzata High in Medina, while Kneepkens prepped at Duluth’s Marshall High and set the school scoring record.

Kneepkens has made 62 triples this season and is averaging 15.3 points; Johnson chips in 12.1 points and 5.1 rebounds.

From left, Utah’s Kennady McQueen (24), Gianna Kneepkens (5) and Jenna Johnson (22) celebrate after defeating Oregon in semifinal round of the Pac-12 women’s tournament Friday, March 4, 2022, in Las Vegas. | John Locher, Associated Press

“Some important things I feel like we touch on a lot when people ask questions (about their success) … is just our connectedness all the time,” Kneepkens said. “When games get hard, we stay connected, we find each other, we lift each other up.”

These two know what hard is. Johnson reported after the Cal win that it was 50 degrees below zero in her hometown the other day.

“The thing about (the Minnesotans) is they are so reliable,” Roberts said. “We never have to wonder where their minds are going to be, where their head space is going to be. They just do what they do, night in and night out.”

After Johnson led the Utes in scoring last year with a 12.0 average and Kneepkens was No. 2 at an 11.8 clip and the twosome from the Land of 10,000 Lakes had established themselves as the stars of the future, there was some concern over how they would deal with Pili coming in and dominating the basketball too much.

“Some important things I feel like we touch on a lot when people ask questions (about their success) … is just our connectedness all the time. When games get hard, we stay connected, we find each other, we lift each other up.” — Utah guard Gianna Kneepkens

Those fears went unfounded.

“I alway want to be known as the workhorse out there, the one who is doing whatever it takes to win, whether it is rebounding, passing and then scoring when I get my opportunities,” Johnson said in January. “We are definitely an offense where everyone has to be a threat, and so when I get my opportunity to score or whatever, I take advantage of it. So I love to see Alissa dropping 20 every night.”

Johnson said she’s not surprised by this year’s success.

“Coming off last year we knew the core of our group was going to be back. Adding Alissa to it, we were like, ‘OK, we can have something special here. By the end of the season last year we were gaining confidence and were like, ‘dang, we are a good team.’ Coming into the season, we knew that we had the pieces in place to be good.”

That all-important international flair

When the 6-4 McFarland sustained an ACL injury at the Pac-12 tournament last year that she still hasn’t totally recovered from, 6-5 Australian Kelsey Rees filled in admirably and was a mainstay in the remaining games.

But Roberts knew she needed more height and strength inside, which is why she went hard after Pili.

“She is so unique in her ability to score,” Roberts said of Pili. “She is one of the most efficient players I have ever been around. She has bought into what we are trying to do, and she has got herself into the best shape of her life.”

Rees and McFarland have been solid contributors, and so have two other international players — Palmer of Australia and Ines Vieira of Portugal.

Utah Utes forward Kelsey Rees grabs the ball as Washington center Darcy Rees guards her at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“They are both incredibly fast and push the tempo for us and do an amazing job,” Roberts said. “They are also different types of players, which is really nice. They are interchangeable, in that regard.”

Palmer is averaging 8.1 points in 24 minutes per game, while Vieira is averaging 2.8 points in 17 minutes per game. The international duo has combined for 164 assists.

“Coach Rob uses the analogy of how the spokes in the wheel will have to even out if one of them is missing,” Palmer said. “Alissa Pili brings a big presence to our team, but as you have seen all season long, from one through 13, everyone brings something to the table. Everyone knows their role and what they can do.”

Powered by purposeful, values-driven people

While Roberts deserves every bit of the credit she’s received for getting the program to the peak of women’s college basketball this season, she also acknowledges that players win games, and in that respect it is her recruiting that has been as impressive as her win total.

Also, Utah’s athletic administrators deserve some credit for their patience. A lot of schools would not have been as willing to wait for the success come.

“This is my 21st year as a head coach, and I have learned by making mistakes, obviously,” said Roberts, who was also head coach at Chico State and Pacific. “And what I have learned and landed on is I am only going to recruit quality human beings. Leopards don’t change their spots.

“So I am spoiled rotten, by choice, because of who we recruit, that I don’t have to deal with a lot of the riff-raff, off the court,” she continued. “And so when you bring in a bunch of players who have the same values, and they can be very different, and learn from each other of their own different experiences, but they have the same values, and it is really powerful.”

And poised to make a prolonged postseason run.

The Utah Utes celebrate becoming Pac-12 co-champions after defeating Stanford Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Salt Lake City. | Rob Gray, Associated Press