There was a heavyweight battle going on Friday night at the Huntsman Center — Utah vs. USC, with the winner gaining a critical victory in the ultra competitive Pac-12 women’s basketball race.
The Utes came out the victor in a physical matchup, rolling to the 78-58 win behind another career night for star forward Alissa Pili.
“Incredibly proud of our team. What a tremendous win,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “We controlled it from start to finish. USC certainly made their runs, but we pushed back.”
Pili tied her career high with 37 points, the final ones coming on a 3-pointer with 1:59 remaining just before she checked out of the game.
“I think our team just played really, really hard and they executed the game plan with what we were trying to do defensively. It wasn’t perfect, but the effort was perfect. The intensity, the mentality was perfect. And that’s when good things happen.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts
Pili and USC freshman phenom JuJu Watkins were in a scoring battle of their own for a good portion of the night, matching each other in a showcase of two of the top talents in the women’s game.
Pili was the more efficient shooter — she made 13 of 16 from the field, 5 of 6 from 3 and 6 of 8 from the free-throw line, while adding six rebounds, one assist and a steal.
“What an incredible game. ... She always seemed to have an answer, shot the ball great,” Roberts said of Pili’s night.
Watkins, meanwhile, made 11 of 22 for 26 points, matching her season average in her first trip to Salt Lake City.
The Utes (13-5, 3-3 Pac-12), though, made USC pay for every point. The Trojans shot 36.1% on the night, well under their season average of 45.2%.
Roberts praised her team for playing hard and executing the game plan. “Everything she shot was really well-contested,” the coach said of defending USC’s star freshman.
“I think our team just played really, really hard and they executed the game plan with what we were trying to do defensively,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t perfect, but the effort was perfect. The intensity, the mentality was perfect, and that’s when good things happen.”
Roberts specifically cited the tough defense that Dasia Young and Maty Wilke played against Watkins.
“She’s not intimidated by anybody, which is part of her skill set,” Roberts said of Young and facing up against the 6-foot-2 Watkins, who had three inches on her. “She’s not going to back down from anybody and you have to have people like that on your team.
“... Dasia did a nice job being physical and not letting her get comfortable and not letting her get the catches right where she wants to. That’s the thing you have to do with a great scorer like that. If they get comfortable, you’re in trouble.”
Wilke played well on both ends of the court, scoring 12 points as the team’s only other player besides Pili to finish in double digits.
Wilke hit three 3-pointers, the last of which gave Utah its double-digit lead back with 3:31 to play in the third quarter after USC (13-2, 3-2 Pac-12) had whittled the Utes’ lead down to as little as three points earlier in the quarter.
“She’s a tremendously smart player,” Roberts said of Wilke. “When you saw some of the things she did defensively tonight, she’s smart and then she can shoot it. She was huge tonight, she had a couple of big 3s.”
Top performers: Alissa Pili, facing her former team, tied her career high with 37 points on 13 of 16 shooting. She also made five 3-pointers and had six rebounds, one assist and a steal.
Maty Wilke added 12 points while Jenna Johnson contributed eight points and six rebounds.
Freshman phenom JuJu Watkins had 26 points to pace USC.
Key stretch: Utah used a 14-2 run near the end of the third quarter to push a 47-42 lead out to 61-44 heading into the final period.
Points off turnovers: Utah turned 17 USC turnovers into 27 points, while the Trojans managed to turn 15 Utes turnovers into 13 points.
Shooting: The Utes ended up making 44.1% of their field goals, hit 10 of 31 3-pointers and were 16 of 22 from the free-throw line. USC, meanwhile, made 36.1% of its shots, including 7 of 25 3-point attempts, and was 7 of 14 from the free-throw line.
Utah closed the third quarter on a 14-2 run to build a 61-44 lead, and from there, the Utes finished strong to pick up a victory over a Trojans team that had lost just once this season prior to Friday night.
The Utes shot 44.1% from the field and they hit three more 3-pointers (10 to 7) than USC.
Utah also had a significant edge at the free-throw line, making 16 of 22 compared to just 7 of 14 for the Trojans.
Another example of the Utes’ dominance Friday night? Utah turned 17 USC turnovers into 27 points, while USC turned 15 Utah turnovers into 13 points.
It’s the kind of win that has the Utes trending in the right direction. Utah has won two straight by an average of 28.5 points after losing three of four to start Pac-12 play.
As a result, the Utes are now sixth in the Pac-12 standings, with plenty of time to move up.
There was another reason to celebrate, too. Utah’s Issy Palmer entered the game with 2:53 remaining in the first quarter to an appreciative cheer from the crowd.
That’s because it was the senior guard’s first action since mid-November — she played just three games before an undisclosed injury sidelined her the past two months.
Palmer ended up with 4 points and two assists in nine minutes.
Pili, in typical fashion, credited her teammates following her latest heroic evening.
“Being on a team like this, it’s really easy to go out there and play and not really worry about my stats. It’s just props to my teammates for finding me to create shots for me and things like that,” Pili said.
“It feels good to have a high-scoring game, but I’ll always give credit to my teammates.”
Roberts, too, commented on the leadership qualities she sees in the 6-foot-2 Pili, who’s being projected as a future first-round WNBA draft pick but for now is just worried about getting her team playing its best heading into March.
“I think what separates her — everyone sees her talent and her ability. She wants to win, she wants her teammates to do well. She’s not trying to get hers,” Roberts said of Pili.
“She knew for us to win she’s got to produce, but it’s about winning with her. When your best player is about winning and not about themselves, then that’s when good things happen.”
The Utes will stay at home and face another top 10 team, No. 5 UCLA, on Monday (5 p.m. MST, ESPN2).
The Bruins handed No. 3 Colorado its first Pac-12 loss Friday night, going on the road and winning 76-68.
Following Monday’s game, Utah will hit the road for four straight games, including contests at Oregon and Oregon State next week.