Boasting its highest seed in program history and its first-ever Pac-12 championship, the Utah women’s basketball team seems primed to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. 

The No. 2-seeded Utes are hosting the first two rounds and they open with a matchup against a red-hot No. 15 Gardner-Webb team Friday (5:30 p.m, MDT, ESPNU) at the Huntsman Center.

Utes on the air

NCAA Tournament

No. 15 Gardner-Webb (29-4)
vs. No. 2 Utah (25-4)
Friday, 5:30 p.m. MST
Huntsman Center

Yes, it’s been two weeks since Utah was bounced from the Pac-12 tournament by Washington State in Las Vegas. It’s been a long layoff, but the Utes (25-4) are looking at that as a positive. 

“I would just say that ending the tournament how we didn’t want to, I think that kind of motivated us more to just put in that work in practice and just stay focused and locked in for the (NCAA) tournament,” said Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili.

“We went into the Pac-12 tournament a little bit banged up, so a couple weeks off just to recover and be at full health has been really nice,” said forward Jenna Johnson. “We got to play our practice team last week, so it was nice to get up-and-down, kind of get our lungs back where they need to be.

“Playing at 5,000 feet, obviously it’s hard sometimes when you have an extended amount of time off. But I feel like just refocusing on us getting healthy and continuing to stay sharp has been good for us.”

Guard Issy Palmer, who averages 8.1 points per game, didn’t play in the Pac-12 tournament due to injury, but coach Lynne Roberts anticipates Palmer will be available Friday. 

This Utah team is tournament tested, having knocked off Arkansas as a No. 7 seed in the first round last year before falling at No. 2-seeded Texas

What did the Utes learn from that experience? 

“It’s just that every possession matters. I think we showed that,” Roberts said. “And we got beat at Texas. I mean, it was close for a while — I don’t remember the final score, but they controlled it from tip to finish. So we didn’t want that feeling again.”

Roberts said her team deserves its lofty No. 2 seeding and the confidence that comes with it.

“I think we’ve earned it. We’ve won a lot of close games against some really good teams. We don’t have a single bad loss on our schedule,” she said. “So we’ve earned it. I think there’s no better way to gain confidence than feeling like you earned something, you worked for it, you commit to it, you dedicate to it.” 

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At the same time, Roberts certainly isn’t taking this first-round opponent lightly. 

Gardner-Webb (29-4), winners of 21 consecutive games, posted a perfect 18-0 record in the Big South Conference, capturing both the regular season and tournament titles. The private Baptist school is located in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. 

“It’s going to be hard, they’re going to be hard,” Roberts said. “But you got to have your fists up ready to fight, and you can’t just walk in because you’ll get your tail beat.”

Added Roberts: “They have won 21 games in a row. That’s really hard to do. I don’t care what league you’re in, that is really hard to do. They’re very well-coached. They play super hard. So it’s not going to be easy.”

The Runnin’ Bulldogs are led by guard Jhesskyka Williams, who averages 19.8 points per game. 

Gardner-Webb guard Jhessyka Williams brings the ball up court against High Point during the Big South Championship on Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Charlotte, N.C. Williams averages 19.8 points per game. | Jacob Kupferman, Associated Press

“Their leading scorer, Williams, is a handful. She’s kind of a matchup nightmare. She can play the 3 or the 4. She’s averaging 27 points in their last five games. She can attack, she can shoot, she can put pressure on you,” Roberts said. “They have got one of the best shooters I’ve seen in (Lauren) Bevis, a little guard they have that can really get going.

“They’re just a complete team. They have got a great point guard, they got a great shooter, they have got post play, and then they’re very athletic and aggressive. So that’s why they have won 21 in a row. They have every spot.”

Roberts added that Gardner-Webb likes to pressure defensively and it is aggressive when it comes to offensive rebounding. 

“We’ve got to do a good job keeping ’em off the glass,” she said. “A lot of their points come from second-chance points. But they’re just aggressive and seemingly very fearless … Those are dangerous teams, when they come in with that kind of confidence, upperclassmen, kind of nothing to lose in the regard of, they’re not favored to win. Those are dangerous teams. So they have our attention, for sure. They have our team’s attention. We’ll be ready to go.”

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Gardner-Webb arrived in Salt Lake City in style — on the New England Patriots’ team plane. 

“Flying on the Patriots plane is pretty cool,” Bevis said. “A lot of people don’t get to do that.”

The Runnin’ Bulldogs don’t appear to be in awe, or in fear, of the Utes.  

“For us, any team can be beaten. We have a lot of confidence going into this game,” Bevis said. “The season that we’ve had, we put a lot of work into practices and to workouts, watch film all the time. No team is unbeatable.”

Coach Alex Simmons knows that while her team is considered an underdog, she wants to show the nation what it can do on a big stage.

“I don’t think they know our style. I don’t think they know our mindset. It’s clear that our mindset isn’t known very well. I think, for lack of a better term, when everybody thinks of Gardner-Webb, they think of Gardner-Webb of old and not Gardner-Webb of new,” she said. “I came here wanting our players to experience everything that I’ve experienced as a student-athlete, and that was my No. 1 goal. Especially this year, we’re doing that.”

“I think we’ve earned it. We’ve won a lot of close games against some really good teams. We don’t have a single bad loss on our schedule.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts on the Utes’ No. 2 seed

Simmons is concerned about Utah’s efficiency from 3-point range and Pili inside. 

“She’s a force,” Simmons said about Pili. “We know that she loves counter moves. Not putting them on the free-throw line — I believe they shoot 78% from the free-throw line. What we’ve been talking about this week is sticking to our defensive principles and not giving them what they want.”

Utah, meanwhile, is thrilled to be able to play in front of its fans this weekend. 

“We’re excited to be at home. This is just such a great opportunity and we’re grateful that we are here,” Roberts said. “We’ve all had our sights on this in terms of the opportunity to host. The advantage that it is, that doesn’t mean it’s a given that you win or it’s easy to win ever in this tournament. But certainly we are appreciative of the opportunity to host and we hope we have some great crowds. And we’re playing a really good team on Friday. Gardner-Webb’s good.” 

Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens works to get around Arizona guard Lauren Fields at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Utah won 80-79. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Pili said her team has a competitive advantage, not having to travel and being able to play in familiar surroundings. 

“I think it’s huge for us, especially with the fan base that’s been built over here,” she said. “Just the energy we feel from the crowd and everybody who supports us, it’s boosted our performances and our energy on the court as well. So, yeah, it feels good to be at home, play at our own court. And I think we play well here, so it’s definitely an advantage.”

The Utes know how it feels to lose in a tournament setting, whether it’s the Pac-12 tournament or March Madness. They know what they need to do to ensure that they can survive and advance — and make a deep tournament run.

“Just not to take anything for granted and just knowing we have to be sharp every single game,” Pili said. “Just take care of business when it comes down to it. We’ve been talking a lot about it in practice; just every possession is important, and we’ve been stressing that in practice. These games are — it’s one and done, so once we lose, we’re out, and this is the final go-round, so I think we’re all taking it pretty seriously and we’re just locked in and ready to go.”

Utah’s Peyton McFarland attends practice at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 16, 2023. The No. 2 seed Utes will face No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament on Friday at 5:30 p.m. MDT at the Huntsman Center. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News