Utah takes a page from Princeton playbook: Play hard and survive
The second-seeded Utes rode Alissa Pili’s 28 points and 10 rebounds and made enough big plays when they counted
By Bruce Smith
Fresh off a convincing win in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the Utah Utes looked to achieve a year-long goal Sunday by beating Princeton to advance to the Sweet 16 after falling just short last year.
Coach Lynne Roberts said she knew it would be difficult for the Utes, even while playing at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, where they were undefeated this season, and in front of 8,563 fans.
In the end, the second-seeded Utes rode Alissa Pili’s 28 points and 10 rebounds, and made enough big plays when they counted, to survive and claim a 63-56 victory over No. 10 Princeton, the champions of the Ivy League.
Afterward, both teams felt more exhausted than anything else.
“That was hard,” Roberts said. “They are tough and you can see why they are such a good program. It’s not just a good team this year. They are just a great program, well-coached, disciplined, physical, fearless. We just couldn’t pull away.”
She continued, “But we win a close one to Arizona here; UCLA here; we beat Stanford here. All those were down to the last minute. It’s just the culmination of those games. Elite, great teams win those games and we found a way to do it.”
Utah took the lead early in the contest, and built it to as many as 13 points, but never felt comfortable. After the first period, the game turned into a Princeton-type contest, which meant every possession was important and every shot contested.
Finally, the clock ran out on the Tigers, who finish the season with a 24-6 record. They lost in the second round for the second straight season, after dispatching Kentucky and losing to Indiana last year.
Utah, meanwhile, celebrated earning its 27th win. The Utes lost at Texas in the second round in 2022, but the experience they gained — and the addition of Pili — have given this year’s team confidence to go further.
“(Going to the Sweet 16) means everything,” said Pili, this year’s Pac-12 player of the year who had a season-high 33 points in Friday’s win over Gardner-Webb. “It’s a lot of hard work paid off. But like Coach said, we are not done yet and we can make a run even deeper in the tournament.”
It almost didn’t happen because Princeton had Utah on the ropes for much of the second half, thanks primarily to its gritty attitude and offensive rebounding. Neither school shot well, and never found their offensive rhythm, so they focused on defense. Utah’s early lead ended up being too much to overcome.
“I think it’s a team standard we have,” said Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell, who had eight points and an amazing 18 rebounds. “It’s a 40-minute game and you’re always in it until that last buzzer sounds. We all bought into it and we really feed off of each other. We’re always going to fight no matter how the game is going.”
Pili and Roberts were really the only players who might have been able to believe they played good games. Everybody else was just finding alternative ways to contribute.
For Utah, Jenna Johnson had her moments, and finished with 15 points and six rebounds, but Utah made just 1-of-15 from three-point range.
The team’s usual dependable shotmakers like Gianna Kneepkens and Kennady McQueen combined for 15 points and often had to give up possible momentum-busting baskets when a Princeton player came flying into their faces.
Guards Issy Palmer and Ines Viera were held scoreless on 0-9 shooting. As a team, Utah shot less than 40% (17-43), and made one-half as many baskets as Friday’s effort.
The Utah bench accounted for just five points. Teya Sidberry and Lani White had their moments, but couldn’t find any consistency.
For Princeton, it was much of the same.
Guard Kaitlyn Chen was the Tigers’ leading scorer, but she was harassed constantly and made just 6 of 27 shots. Grace Stone, who made the game-winning shot in Princeton’s 64-63 win over North Carolina State Friday, added 16 points, but was 5-17 from the field. Madison St. Rose was 1-9.
The Utes will welcome the chance to regroup before taking a long flight to Greenville, S.C., where they will play LSU in the Sweet 16 in hopes of extending this season’s primary goal.