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Dancing queens: Utah women’s basketball team earns No. 2 seed, will host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games

Pac-12 co-champion faces Gardner-Webb Friday, could meet NC State or Princeton on Sunday in second round

SHARE Dancing queens: Utah women’s basketball team earns No. 2 seed, will host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games
Utah’s Alissa Pili waits as selection results are announced

Utah’s Alissa Pili waits as selection results are announced during the viewing party for the Utah women’s basketball NCAA tournament selection at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on March 12, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Although it certainly came as no surprise, what happened Sunday night for the University of Utah women’s basketball team marked the achievement of the second of three major goals the squad set at the beginning of the season.

The first was to win the Pac-12 championship, which happened two weeks ago when the Utes knocked off Stanford for a share of the title.

The second was to earn at least a high enough seed so the Utes could host the first two rounds of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The third is to make it to the Sweet 16, which barely eluded Utah last year, but is clearly doable this year because the Utes learned Sunday their second goal has been realized.

“Honestly, our goal was to host, and protect our home court, and have a chance to do that. And we will just take it — our whole mantra the last six weeks of the season was to go 1-0, and that doesn’t change.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts

“This was my vision when I got here (eight years ago),” Utah coach Lynne Roberts told a large watch-party gathering at the Layton Field Club in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Utes (25-4) earned their highest NCAA Tournament seed, getting a No. 2 seed, for March Madness and will host No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb University, a private Baptist school in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, on Friday at the Huntsman Center.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs (29-4) went undefeated in the Big South Conference (18-0) and also won the league tournament. 

The Utes-Bulldogs winner will meet the winner of No. 7 seed North Carolina State and No. 10 seed Princeton in the second round Sunday in Salt Lake City.

Utah was put in the Greenville (South Carolina) 2 Regional, where Indiana is the No. 1 seed, meaning that if the Utes take care of business at home, they will play across the country in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 instead of at the other regional, which is in Seattle, Washington.

“I am pleased that we got a 2 seed. I think we earned that (through) the course of the whole season,” Roberts said. “I know losing in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament (to eventual champion Washington State) kept us out of that 1 seed. But I thought we deserved a 2. I don’t know much about Gardner-Webb. I know they always have a good team. They are in this tournament for a reason, so we will get ready to work on them.”

Star players Alissa Pili and Gianna Kneepkens confessed to not knowing where Gardner-Webb is located until they were told a few minutes after the matchup was announced, but that didn’t dampen their enthusiasm in any way.

“Yeah, I think the best part about the NCAA Tournament is you get to see new places, play new people, face new styles,” Kneepkens said. “Every conference has a different style. So playing new places, new people, doing new scouting, is fun. And I wouldn’t mind whatever day we play as long as we get to play basketball.”

A possible Sunday game in the second round in a religious community such as Salt Lake City and Utah isn’t optimal for ticket sales, but it certainly beats the alternative. Roberts said after the Utes were bounced by Texas in the second round last year on the Longhorns’ home court that they set the goal to host this year.

A few weeks ago, the coach said being in a Seattle regional was preferred, but not a priority.

“Honestly, our goal was to host, and protect our home court, and have a chance to do that,” she said. “And we will just take it — our whole mantra the last six weeks of the season was to go 1-0, and that doesn’t change.

“We want to go 1-0 on Friday and hopefully have a chance to go 1-0 on Sunday,” she continued. “And then we would get the chance to go to South Carolina. I didn’t really care if we were in South Carolina, or Seattle. I just want to compete here and win a couple games.”

The good news is that Utah wouldn’t face overall No. 1 seed and defending champion South Carolina (32-0) until the championship game. Every other team in the tournament appears beatable for the Utes, as they proved when they beat Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the Seattle 4 Regional.

The Women’s Final Four is in Dallas this year.

But first things first. Gardner-Webb has a fantastic player in guard Jhessyka Williams, who averages 19.8 points per game. Princeton and North Carolina State will also play Friday in Salt Lake City.

“I know NC State is very good, and Princeton as well,” Roberts said. “So we have our work cut out for us. It is kind of fun to play new teams that you don’t know much about, and they don’t know much about you, and that is what the NCAA Tournament is all about. So we are excited about that, and excited that we get to host. So overall, very pleased.”

Roberts said the Utes are not 100% healthy — starting point guard Issy Palmer missed the Wazzu game with an undisclosed injury — but “we will be by Friday.”

She said Utah coaches planned to meet Sunday night after the watch party to start getting ready. The team will practice Monday, take Tuesday off, then hold its “heavy” practice Wednesday.

“Then Friday, here we go,” she said.

Pili, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who transferred in from USC after three years there, said this will be her first NCAA Tournament and she plans to make the most of it.

“It is a blessing in and of itself,” she said. “I mean, we are going to go out and compete with anybody, so I don’t think (seedings and regionals) really matter to any of us.”

Kneepkens, an All-Pac-12 First Team selection, said it has been a “long wait” since the Utes lost 66-58 to WSU in the Pac-12 quarterfinals 10 days ago in Las Vegas, but the loss didn’t nick their confidence or change the positive vibes around the team.

“I wouldn’t say it changed our vibe. I think we all know what we are capable of. We didn’t live up to our potential, and we all know that,” Kneepkens said. “I think it gives us a little more of a chip on our shoulder, because we know what we need to do. We are all excited to learn from that game, but then also move forward and be a part of March Madness.”

The second-highest seeded team in the Utes’ eight-team quadrant in the Greenville 2 Regional is No. 3 seed LSU (28-2), which opens against Hawaii. A Utes-LSU matchup in Greenville would pit two high-scoring clubs.

“We love playing great teams, and that is what we get to do in March, so we are all excited for this new opportunity, and each game, each day in March is a way to reach our goals,” Kneepkens said.

Goals set eight months ago — and the Utes are two-thirds there.