Lynne Roberts had a clear message after the No. 19 Utah women’s basketball team’s heartbreaking 66-64 loss against No. 8 Stanford on Friday night at the Huntsman Center.

“I do think these situations will make you better in March. It sucks now, but you don’t win conference championships in January,” the Utes coach said. “This is going to make us better, it’s going to make us tougher, it’s going to make me a better coach. And I’m all for that.”

For the second straight game, including a 71-70 overtime loss at Arizona last Sunday, Utah came out on the wrong end of multiple officiating calls at the end of a frustrating defeat.

It takes a bit of explaining. Here goes:

  • Utah climbed within 65-64 with 54 seconds to play on an Alissa Pili runner in the lane.
  • On Stanford’s ensuing possession, the Cardinal appeared to have committed a shot clock violation with around 25 seconds to play — though there was no review, and the game played on and that led to a side out for the Cardinal following a Stanford rebound.
  • On an inbound with 13.9 seconds to play, Jenna Johnson tied up Cameron Brink, and the possession arrow gave the ball to Utah.
  • On Utah’s next possession, Pili drove into the lane and appeared to be fouled across the arm while being defended by two Stanford players. Instead, the official called another jump ball with 4.4 seconds left, giving the possession back to the Cardinal.
  • Stanford’s Talana Lepolo made 1 of 2 free throws to make it a two-point game, giving the Utes an opportunity to tie or win the game.
  • On Utah’s final possession, which started with 1.9 seconds remaining, Pili couldn’t get a good look and missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“It’s hard. I don’t think I have any power to make any changes to that. It isn’t in my control,” Roberts said when asked about the officiating that’s gone against them. “We talk about you can’t control what you can’t control, so don’t focus on it, and we’ve got to be tough.

“I think everyone here and on TV saw what happened, so you don’t need me to say it.”

“I just feel for this team and our coaches that put so much into it and then we get the short end of the stick time after time, but it’s not going to stop us. We’re going to keep swinging, we’re going to keep fighting and we’re eventually going to come out on top.” — Utah forward Alissa Pili

Roberts said the officials didn’t give an explanation on why the apparent shot clock violation wasn’t reviewed, adding that the officials wouldn’t make eye contact. This came after there had been a shot clock violation review on Utah earlier in the game that took two points away from the Utes.

In the ultra-competitive Pac-12 — the league has five teams currently ranked in the top 25, and four in the top 10 — this level of officiating doesn’t cut it, the coach reiterated.

“For the level of play in this league, I do think it deserves to be better,” she said.

The loss dropped the Utes, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 title, to 11-5 on the season and 1-3 in conference play. 

The nature of Friday’s loss had the Utes, who have dealt with their share of adversity and injuries thus far this season, understandably upset afterward.

“This is the first time we’ve lost at home in a minute so that definitely hurts, but I think it’s just frustrating when we play our (expletive) off out there. We put it all out there, and it just doesn’t go our way,” said an emotional Pili, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot.

“I just feel for this team and our coaches that put so much into it and then we get the short end of the stick time after time, but it’s not going to stop us. We’re going to keep swinging, we’re going to keep fighting and we’re eventually going to come out on top.”

Stanford, to its credit, stayed strong against a determined Utah attack in front of a raucous crowd, allowing the Utes to shoot just 39% from the field.

Forward Kiki Iriafen scored 25 points and had 16 rebounds to lead Stanford, while veteran Hannah Jump added 12 points, four assists and three steals.

The Cardinal also overcame an uncharacteristic night from star forward Brink, who had nine points and seven rebounds.

“I thought both teams played their guts out. I’m incredibly proud of my team. I thought that we left it all out there, played together, played connected, played super hard,” Roberts said.

Give credit, too, to Utes like Johnson, who fought for 15 points, four rebounds and two assists while giving Utah a physical, smart presence inside against a lengthier Stanford squad.

“We keep showing up every day and giving our all. I thought we were locked in tonight on the game plan, played together. A lot of people stepped up and played tough down the stretch,” Johnson said.

“My tank was empty. I know so many other people’s were, so it’s obviously just frustrating at the end coming up short again. But I know tomorrow, we’re going to get back at it.”

Friday night’s effort showed the resiliency of Roberts’ team, though the losing result, again, came in frustrating fashion.

There were a multitude of positives that came from a night in which Utah fought back several times from a seemingly insurmountable deficit and trailed by as many as 10 points against the high-powered Cardinal, which improved to 15-1 overall and 4-0 in league play.

That’s why it’s important to not get discouraged, and instead learn from the loss.

“A lot of positives, and I think that’s why it hurts so much,” Roberts said. “Once again, like Alissa said, we get the short end of the stick and that can either make us pout and feel sorry for ourselves or it can piss us off and motivate us, and that’s what it’s going to do to me. I can promise you that.”

Key takeaways

Top performers: Kiki Iriafen scored 25 points and had 16 rebounds to lead Stanford.

Alissa Pili put up 16 points, seven rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block, while Maty Wilke added 11 points, two rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block and Jenna Johnson had 15 points, four rebounds and two assists for Utah.

Key stretch: A wild final minute defined this game.

Pili nailed a runner in the lane to make it a one-point game.

On the ensuing possession, Utah eventually got the ball back with 13.9 seconds left on a called jump ball, though it appeared Stanford came close to a shot clock violation earlier, though there was no review.

On Utah’s possession, Pili drove into the lane and appeared to be fouled with 4.4 seconds remaining. The official, though, called another jump ball when Pili endured a heavy amount of contact.

After Stanford hit 1 of 2 free throws, Pili missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, giving Stanford the win.

There was also the standout performance from Wisconsin transfer Maty Wilke, who has taken some time finding consistency in her new home.

Wilke was a spark off the bench for Utah, particularly in the second half, and showed confidence in shooting 3 of 7 from 3-point range. Her final 3, with 3:49 to play, made it a one-point game.

She finished with 11 points, two rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot, while making savvy plays on both ends of the court.

“That’s what she’s capable of,” Roberts said of Wilke.

Roberts believes in her team — the players do, too — and that things will be sorted out between now and March for a program that entered the year ranked No. 5 and holds aspirations to advance further than last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.

Johnson echoed her coach when asked how she maintains such a positive outlook in spite of a disheartening loss.

“Even though we’ve lost more games this year than we were maybe expecting or used to, I just see a mentality with the team that we’re not being discouraged,” she said.

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“I think just seeing that every single day, I know we’re going to keep bringing it and you know, (come) March, we’re going to be scary.”

What’s next?

The Utes will stay home for a couple weeks and face an improved Cal team on Sunday (noon MST, Pac-12 Network).

The Golden Bears (12-4, 2-2 Pac-12) lost at No. 5 Colorado late Friday night.

After that, Utah will host No. 9 USC (Friday, Jan. 19) and No. 2 UCLA (Monday, Jan. 22) next weekend.

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