Utah’s size proved too much for Gardner-Webb in the opening round of the women’s NCAA Tournament as the second-seeded Utes topped the 15th-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs 103-77 Friday night.
The Utes were outstanding in the paint, outscoring Gardner-Webb 60-26. They also outrebounded the Runnin’ Bulldogs 44-30 with the bulk coming on defense to thwart second-chance points.
“They were able to get us pretty deep in the paint for a little bit longer than what we’re used to,” said Gardner-Webb coach Alex Simmons.
“Alissa Pili is very good around the basket, especially when it comes to counter moves, faking moves and making moves, but we thought our pressure would hurt them, our pressure would slow them down a little bit and they wouldn’t be able to run what they wanted to.”
Gardner-Webb threw everything it had at Utah to apply pressure, but its reward was foul trouble early on. Its leading scorer, Jhessyka Williams, picked up her second foul close to midway through the first quarter, which meant the Big South Player of the Year had to sit out early.
Meanwhile, Ute forwards Jenna Johnson and Pili took over the game. Johnson recorded 10 points in the first quarter to lead Utah and finished with 20 overall, but it was Pili again who had the biggest of games on the biggest of stages.
The Pac-12 Player of the Year was the continued force she’s been all season long under the basket, recording a season-high 33 points. She also nabbed eight rebounds and dished out a team-best eight assists.
“You know, our team was a little shocked because of certain things when we finally were able to see Utah in person,” Simmons said.
“Scouting is one of my favorite things to do as a coach and as a head coach, and I thought we came into the game with a great game plan. I think foul trouble really got us out of the flow of what we wanted to do, but again, the way they shoot the 3, the way Alissa Pili finishes inside, it’s always going to be a tough matchup no matter who they play.”
Said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts: “Our ability to score inside, Jenna and Alissa today were phenomenal, and (Gardner-Webb) just didn’t have an answer for it.”
Utah also had the advantage with the size of its guards, including Gianna Kneepkens. The sophomore led the team with nine rebounds in the game, and finished with 17 points despite a slow start of only three points in the first half.
Utah’s other big factor was playing in front of its home crowd. While not all of the 7,130 fans were Ute fans, it’s easy to say most fit the bill. It’s an advantage Utah has enjoyed all season, not losing in the Huntsman Center this year.
“All the great teams have a really good homecourt advantage, and you see we’re starting to have that, too,” said Johnson. “It helps us a lot, it’s really fun to play in and yeah, it’s great.”
Utah will look to that big home advantage again Sunday at 5 p.m. MT when it faces off against 10th-seeded Princeton in the second round.
The Tigers hit a game-winning shot with just over four seconds left to upset seventh-seeded North Carolina State in the late game Friday.