The LSU Tigers of the SEC are favored to beat the upstart University of Utah Utes of the Pac-12 in Friday’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament Sweet 16 matchup in Greenville, South Carolina, despite the fact that Utah is a No. 2 seed and LSU a No. 3 seed.

And the Utes (27-4) couldn’t be happier about that.

Utes on the air

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

No. 2 Utah (27-4)
vs. No. 3 LSU (30-2)
Friday, 3 p.m. MDT
At Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Greenville, South Carolina
Radio: ESPN700 KALL

Speaking to reporters Thursday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, where they will play in their first Sweet 16 game since 2006 at 3 p.m. MDT Friday on ESPN, Utah players and coach Lynne Roberts refused to play the disrespected card.

But they did acknowledge that LSU (30-2) is expected by most national pundits to move to the Elite Eight and face the winner of the Villanova-Miami matchup Sunday.

“I don’t care. I don’t. I mean, probably not, but no one in our locker room cares,” Roberts said when she was asked if Utah has received enough credit nationally for being Pac-12 regular-season co-champions and rising as high as No. 3 in the national rankings.

“We will compete and play and keep doing what we do, and all that stuff doesn’t really matter. I respect my players for having that mentality, too,” she continued. “They really don’t care. That makes it easy for me to not care, too.”

LSU coach Kim Mulkey reacts during the first half of the team’s second-round college basketball game against Michigan in the women’s NCAA Tournament in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, March 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
LSU coach Kim Mulkey reacts during second-round game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, March 19, 2023. | Matthew Hinton, Associated Press

Coached by the legendary Kim Mulkey, who directed Baylor to three national championships (2005, 2012, 2019) before moving on to Baton Rouge, the Tigers went 15-1 in the SEC before losing 69-67 to Tennessee in the SEC tournament, which was also played in Greenville. LSU’s only other loss was an 88-64 setback to No. 1 overall seed and undefeated South Carolina, a heavy favorite to win the national title this year.

“A lot of those expectations we put on ourselves,” said Utah forward Jenna Johnson. “I think we also definitely have an underdog mentality. We are a very hungry team. … So I don’t think the expectations of the outside world or whatever you want to say gets to us as much. It’s just about being competitive and wanting to succeed.”

Not surprisingly, Utah’s Kennady McQueen, who is from the small Summit County town of Hennefer and has been beating the odds since she left North Summit High, echoed Johnson’s sentiments about not caring less about Utah’s standing on a national level.

“We just had a goal set out starting in the summer last year to make it to the Sweet 16, but now that we’ve made it, we’re not at all satisfied with it,” McQueen said. “Like Jenna said, we are a really competitive bunch of girls, and we want to make it as far as we can. And we believe we can make a deep run by continuing with that underdog mindset.”

LSU is roughly a five-point favorite. Like Utah, the Tigers are one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, averaging 83.2 points per game. The Utes average 83.4 per game.

“I think we also definitely have an underdog mentality. We are a very hungry team. … So I don’t think the expectations of the outside world or whatever you want to say gets to us as much. It’s just about being competitive and wanting to succeed.” — Utah forward Jenna Johnson

“I think we are still flying under a lot of people’s radars, which is fine with us,” McQueen said. “We love that underdog mentality. We love being the hunters. It’s nothing new for us. And love just continuing to prove people wrong. And (to) the ones that believe in us, ‘we’ve got your backs.’ So we just keep emphasizing on that and on going as far as we can.”

Utah’s other Sweet 16 appearances came in 2001 and 2006. In 2006, the Elaine Elliott-coached Utes made it to the Elite Eight before falling in overtime to Maryland, the eventual champion, in Albuquerque.

Utah’s best player, Alissa Pili, a finalist for several National Player of the Year awards, said she and the Utes don’t care about national attention and the like. For them, she said, it is all about winning and advancing.

“I still think there’s a lot of people out there who think we maybe don’t belong at this level or that we can’t compete at this level,” said Pili, a USC transfer. “We have that underdog mentality. So I think just staying hungry and continuing to prove what we can do is just going to get us far.”

Along with jumping on the “Who is Utah?” storyline, a lot of the national focus for Friday’s game is centered on the matchup between Pili and LSU’s best player, Angel Reese, who is averaging 23.8 points and 15.7 rebounds a game.

Reese is not a finalist for the Naismith or Wade trophies, but she said that’s not motivating her this week.

“We’re just happy to be here,” she said. “I am in the Sweet 16 with my teammates. I’m with amazing coaches. It is bigger than me. I just want to be with my teammates and get to the Final Four. That’s the finalist I want to be.”

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After Utah’s closer-than-expected and low-scoring 63-56 win over Princeton in the Round of 32 in Salt Lake City, Roberts referred to the contest as a “rock fight” and credited Princeton for getting the game at its pace.

She doubts Friday’s game will be similar.

“Yeah, I have a feeling it will be a track meet of sorts. We like to play with tempo. It makes us go. They play with tempo. You turn it over, they get a defensive rebound, they’re gone,” Roberts said. “It’s a fun style to watch. I think scoring is fun to watch. I don’t want to watch them do too much of it, but I have a feeling both teams are going to push the pedal on that and play to our strengths.”

That said, the Utes might be better equipped to handle a rock fight-type game if that is what it becomes, due to the presence of Pili. She is averaging 21.0 points and 5.6 boards a game.

“I think if you just watch her, you are going to see just the physicality and the physical stature that she has,” Roberts said. “All season long, I have been calling her a unicorn because she’s just so unique. She’s really athletic and fast and explosive, has great hands but she’s also powerful and strong. It is a tough matchup for anybody.”

As are the Utes. Even if the folks in Las Vegas haven’t figured that out yet.

Utah’s Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili is surrounded by Princeton defenders in second-round NCAA Tournament game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023. The Utes prevailed and will face No. 3 seed LSU in the Sweet 16 on Friday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News