Over the past five weeks, No. 18 Utah has begun to hit its stride — the Utes’ 8-2 record in the Pac-12 during that stretch is evidence of how far they’ve come since starting league play 1-3.

With two weeks left in the regular season, there is a lot at stake not only for Utah but several other conference teams in a league that has six squads ranked in the top 20 of the latest Associated Press poll.  

The next challenge for Utah, after earning a thrilling 1-point win over then-No. 8 Colorado last week, is a two-game road swing at No. 12 UCLA and No. 7 USC this weekend.

“Right now, we’re just focused on the next games,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “It’s late February. You can’t get too ahead of yourself thinking about ‘if this and then we got to do this.’ You just have to focus on one game, and right now it’s UCLA.”

The Utes beat both the Bruins and Trojans last month when those teams visited Salt Lake City, though facing the pair on the road will bring its own obstacles, par for the course in the ultra competitive Pac-12.

“We’re used to it playing in the Pac-12 every single week, and I feel like we’re playing like a top 20 team. We’ve gotten used to it and it’s definitely preparing us for the postseason,” Utah forward Jenna Johnson said.

A key at this point in the season is not looking too far ahead. Right now, there are six teams within three games of each other atop the Pac-12 standings.

Four of those teams will likely earn first-round byes in the Pac-12 tournament — which runs March 6-10 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas — while the other two will have to play in the first round.

Utes on the air

No. 18 Utah (19-7, 9-5 Pac-12)
at No. 12 UCLA (20-5, 9-5 Pac-12)
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. MST
Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
Radio: 700 AM

Utah and UCLA are currently tied for fifth in the league standings at 9-5, one game behind Colorado, Oregon State and USC, who are all 10-4 in Pac-12 action.

They’re fighting to play one less game in Las Vegas, be a bit more fresh come NCAA Tournament time and in all likelihood playing for the right to host the first two rounds in the NCAA Tournament.

Utah did that last year as a No. 2 seed. Right now, the Utes are a projected No. 5 seed in ESPN’s bracketology, though that could change with a solid finish to the regular season and a good showing at the Pac-12 tournament.

The other five top teams in the Pac-12 — Stanford, USC, Colorado, Oregon State and UCLA — are all projected to host the NCAA’s first two rounds.

Stanford is atop the conference standings with a 12-2 league record, and the Cardinal play three teams in the bottom half of the standings in their final four games.

“I just remember the level of intensity and focus it took to beat them. UCLA is so well-coached and executes their stuff really well. That’s just the type of mentality that we have to go into tomorrow with.” — Utah forward Jenna Johnson

The Buffaloes, the Utes’ traveling partner, will also be playing at USC and UCLA this weekend, helping to potentially sort out the seeding.

“That first-round bye is huge, but there’s six of us that all have a shot at it and we all want it and as it all plays out, we’re all playing each other, so it’s going to be pretty decisive,” Roberts said.

“But for us to host the NCAA Tournament, we’ve got to finish out the four regular-season games well and then you know, we can’t lay an egg in the Pac-12 tournament. We’ve got to make some noise there, too. Everything that we’ve talked about all season long is still in front of us.”

The first task, though, is facing UCLA, a team that’s been ranked as high as No. 2 this season and nearly beat the Utes last month after trailing almost the entire game, though Utah forced overtime and earned the win in the extra session.

“I just remember the level of intensity and focus it took to beat them. UCLA is so well-coached and executes their stuff really well,” Johnson said. “That’s just the type of mentality that we have to go into tomorrow with.”

Utah neutralized the Bruins’ top scorer, Lauren Betts, in their first meeting, holding the 6-foot-7 center to seven points and five rebounds while also forcing her into five turnovers.

“She’s a big presence inside for them and she’s a great finisher and post player, so it’s definitely going to be a challenge to keep her off the boards and things like that,” Utah forward Alissa Pili said of Betts.

“She impacts the game a lot, so we’ve just got to be smart about that.”

Roberts said that the Bruins, who like many other teams have dealt with their share of injuries, are now healthy.

Utah’s coach added her team isn’t 100% — Dasia Young, the hero of the Colorado game, missed four straight games before that contest — but “we’ll roll with it.”

“It’s a huge challenge, but it’s fun in February to be playing for something and to go on the road and have an us against them kind of thing, so we’re excited,” Roberts said.

Winning at UCLA (Thursday at 7:30 p.m., ESPN) will be a tall task — the Bruins have gone 12-1 at home this season. 

“Just like anybody, they’re better at home, and so we’ve got to be better than we were here,” Roberts said.

“That was a game where I thought it was very well-played by both teams. We controlled parts of it, they controlled parts of it and then we just kind of ran away with it in overtime but the thing with UCLA — playing them, beating them, you have to play hard.”

It’s a challenge the Utes, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, are embracing as they close in on the end of a regular season that’s been full of ebbs and flows and includes coming off a high moment in that victory over Colorado last week.

“For us going down to LA, we’re going to need that. Literally, we’re going to need some extra life, some extra juice. It’s hard to win on the road in this league, but we’re up for the challenge,” Roberts said.

Two things Pili identified that will be critical for Utah to find success this weekend are avoiding turnovers and playing together.

“When we play together, we’re a very hard team to stop,” she said, “and just locking in on defense because I think when we play great defense, we’re good on the offensive end.”