It didn’t take coach Lynne Roberts or any of her players long to start talking about next year after the Utah women’s basketball team fell 66-63 to LSU in a Sweet 16 game Friday afternoon in South Carolina.

And for good reason.

The silver lining in the No. 2 seeded Utes’ heartbreaking and season-ending loss to the Tigers is that Utah should be even better next year, because there are no seniors on Roberts’ roster.

“It is not a group of individuals. It is the sum of the parts. So that is exciting, and we will add some (players). We have some great freshmen signed and we will be better. I can guarantee you that. We will be better next year.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts.

Of course, no team in college sports is safe from attrition, what with the transfer portal seemingly so appealing to many players, so there is always the chance that some key pieces from the team that won a Pac-12 co-championship with Stanford and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country will move on.

But in her postgame remarks at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Roberts spoke as if she expects every player of significance to return, calling the Utes “tight,” “bought-in” and hungry to improve.

“I am incredibly proud of my team, the season that we had. I just told them there is no other locker room I would rather be in, the way they compete, the way they fight, but also, maybe the most, the way they conduct themselves,” Roberts said.

“This is just an incredible group that represents the University of Utah so well. It is an honor to be their coach. … We had an amazing season.”

Roberts said what set this group apart, and what made them so successful, is that there was no selfishness or players playing for their own individual glory.

Sure, they had a superstar in Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili and a blossoming superstar in All-Pac-12 performer Gianna Kneepkens, but these Utes weren’t a one-trick pony, she said.

They shouldn’t be a one-year wonder, either. The bar has been set. Anything less than a Final Four appearance next year could be viewed as a disappointment.

That’s a testament to how much talent Roberts has recruited.

“It is not a group of individuals. It is the sum of the parts. So that is exciting, and we will add some (players),” Roberts said. “We have some great freshmen signed and we will be better. I can guarantee you that. We will be better next year.”

Speaking of which, the Utes, who finished with a 27-5 record, won’t be able to sneak up on anybody next year, and quite likely will be picked to win the Pac-12 in preseason polls, after being picked to finish fifth this past year.

“Yeah, it is hard to think about it right now, but that is something we can look forward to, is being with each other in the summer and getting better,” Kneepkens said. “It is definitely exciting (to think about) the future and we will get some new girls as well.”

Kneepkens, starting forward Jenna Johnson, starting guard Kennady McQueen, backup post player Kelsey Rees and backup point guard Ines Vieira are all sophomores, meaning the Utes should be good for at least two more years.

Pili has said she plans to return for a fifth year next year, taking advantage of the extra year brought on by COVID-19 altering the 2020-21 season. Backup forward Peyton McFarland, forward Dasia Young and starting point guard Issy Palmer — the unsung hero of this group, in a way — will all be seniors.

Freshmen Teya Sidberry and Lani White were impressive when they got their opportunities to play on a stacked roster.

Last November, the Utes signed the No. 1 ranked player in South Dakota, 6-foot forward Reese Ross, and Daniela Hernandez, a 6-2 forward.

“We can’t wait to get them here,” Roberts said last November.

As for the rise of Kneepkens, who almost single-handedly brought Utah back Friday after LSU had taken an eight-point lead with less than four minutes remaining, Roberts said the native of Duluth, Minnesota, is only going to get better and better.

The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2022, Kneepkens improved her shooting percentages, scoring and rebounding in making the All-Pac-12 First Team along with Pili.

“Everything was improved,” Roberts said. “And she’s just a sophomore, and one of the most driven, competitive players I have ever coached or been around. She’s just scratching the surface (of her potential).”

Bitter finish ends Utah’s dream season as LSU ekes out a Sweet 16 win over Utes
‘Underdog mentality’: Higher-seeded Utes don’t care that LSU is favored to win Sweet 16 matchup Friday

While the Utes’ season is over, some members of the team are still in the running for some prestigious national awards.

Pili is a finalist for the Wooden Award and Ann Drysdale Meyers Award as the top player in the country, along with the Katrina McClain Award as the top power forward. 

Kneepkens is one of five finalists for the Cheryl Miller Award as the nation’s top small forward, and Roberts is a finalist for National Coach of the Year honors.

Looking back, the Utes’ 27 wins ties for the second-most in a season in program history. In 2000-01 they went 28-4.

After a spectacular regular season, they were upset by eventual champion Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament, but recovered nicely by scoring a tournament-high (to date) 103 points against Gardner-Webb in a first-round game.

Friday’s razor-close loss to LSU meant the Utes finished 6-4 against ranked teams this season.