University of Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts has preached all season that having a big home-crowd advantage matters a lot. It was why the Utes worked so hard to get one of the top 16 seeds for the NCAA Tournament and the privilege of hosting first- and second-round games.

Sunday afternoon, in front of more than 8,000 screaming fans, who were on their feet more often than not, the Utes needed every advantage they could get to hold off the upset-minded Princeton Tigers and escape with a 63-56 Round of 32 win at the Huntsman Center.

“Your season of work earns you the right to do it, and so we earned the right to (host). I don’t make up how it works, so we will take it. It was an advantage today.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts.

As a result, the No. 2-seeded Utes are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006, when Elaine Elliott was the coach, and just the third time ever. Utah will meet No. 3 seed LSU on Friday in Greenville, South Carolina, as part of Greenville Regional 2.

“We just couldn’t pull away, but man, am I proud of our team,” Roberts said.

In improving to 27-4, the Utes led for all but 16 seconds of the hard-fought game. They led by as many as 13 points in the second quarter.

But that doesn’t come close to describing how difficult this one turned out to be, as Princeton (24-6) battled to the bitter end and was within two points late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.

“It was a rock fight,” Roberts acknowledged. “That is a good way to describe it.”

Clearly, the Utes didn’t play one of their best games of the season. In fact, a case could be made that they played one of their worst. Credit the visiting Tigers for making it that way.

“We feel like we came up short of our goal, but you know, I think we battled from minute one to minute 40, and I couldn’t be prouder of my team and how hard we played,” said Princeton coach Carla Berube. “Some shots just didn’t fall for us. (We) fouled a bit too much. Utah is a very, very good team, very talented, hard to guard, really great at every position.

“We had our work cut out for us, but I think we were right there.”

A case could also be made that if the Utes weren’t playing at home, they would not have won this game. Down the stretch, when the rock fight was at its rockiest, the Utes pulled through, bolstered by a crowd that was as engaged as any crowd has been at the Huntsman Center in any game, men’s or women’s, in the past 5-6 years.

It was that intense.

“Your season of work earns you the right to do it, and so we earned the right to (host),” Roberts said, almost apologetically. “I don’t make up how it works, so we will take it. It was an advantage today.”

In more ways than one, a point Berube alluded to in her postgame comments without ever flat-out saying it.

The Utes were awarded 37 free throws, making 28, while the Tigers got to the line just 15 times, and hit 11.

Home cooking? Maybe, maybe not. 

But put it this way, if someone had told the Tigers they would take 29 more shots than the Utes (72-43), hold Utah to 1 of 15 shooting from the 3-point line, force the Utes into 20 turnovers and grab 20 offensive rebounds that they turned into 13 second-chance points, they would have liked their chances.

“That was hard,” Roberts said. “They are tough and you can see why they are such a good program. It is not just a good team this year. They are just a great program, well-coached, disciplined, physical, fearless.”

In the end, though, the Utes had the best player on the court, which they have had all season. Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili was fantastic, aside from committing six turnovers in the face of Princeton’s swarming, double-teaming and even triple-teaming defense.

Pili finished with 28 points to go with the 33 she had in Friday’s win over Gardner-Webb, while also grabbing 10 rebounds.

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“I think we have been in a lot of positions like that, close games toward the end, and those games, we have won a lot of those games,” Pili said. “I think we just stay composed and stay together and just stay tough throughout it all. We usually end up on the winning end.”

The Utes thought they had a 35-26 halftime lead. But at halftime, officials reviewed a 3-pointer by Kennady McQueen and said it came after the shot clock had expired. Those points were wiped off the board to give the Utes only a 6-point lead heading into the third quarter, but McQueen doesn’t believe that’s why the game changed in the second half.

“I don’t know if that’s ever happened to me before, not that I can remember, but I don’t think we were fazed by it,” said McQueen who finished with nine points.

Jenna Johnson also came up big for the Utes, scoring 15 points on 5 of 7 shooting.

Trailing 54-49 with under five minutes remaining, twice Princeton had the chance to make in a one-score game, but couldn’t get anything to fall. The Tigers were 3 of 19 in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line.

Roberts said at no time in the game did she feel like the Utes weren’t going to win, and constantly reminded her team in huddles to play to win, and not to not lose. That advice worked, but not without a lot of work.

“You have to give Princeton credit,” Roberts said of the Utes’ sloppy play. “They are tough as nails. … I just thought that we got a little sloppy. The turnovers, I just about lost my mind.”

Goaded into doing what was supposed to be a celebratory dance by the public address announcer after the game, Roberts half-heartedly did something that resembled the Griddy.

“I did not want to do the Griddy,” she said. “We win again, I will pull out a legit one.”

To win again, the Utes will have to play well away from their boisterous crowd against an LSU team that walloped Michigan 66-42 in Baton Rouge Sunday.

And it probably goes without saying, but they have to play better than they did in their final home game at the Huntsman.