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Why Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts is optimistic about the upcoming season

Utah Utes Head Coach Lynne Roberts talks to the team during a basketball game against the California Golden Bears at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020.
Utah Utes Head Coach Lynne Roberts talks to the team during a basketball game against the California Golden Bears at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

The Utah women’s basketball program has perhaps its most experienced team ever, at least since Lynne Roberts became coach six years ago, but they have a daunting task this year playing in the tough Pac-12 Conference with 22 league games out of 25 total this season.

The Utes return eight players who started at least one game last year, led by sophomore guard Brynna Maxwell, who averaged 13.1 points and was fourth in the country in 3-point shooting at 47.2 percent.

Also returning are guard Dru Gylten, who has started 60 games the last two seasons and averaged 5.4 assists, sophomore forward Lola Pendande from Spain, and forward Andrea Torres from Canada.

Roberts is excited about her newcomers — three freshmen, including Kennady McQueen of North Summit High — and two transfers.

Here are some tidbits from the Zoom call Roberts held with the media Wednesday.

Schedule

The Pac-12 women will play a 22-game league schedule with a double-round robin, with every team playing everyone twice. But the women are allowed two fewer games than the men, so with 25 total games, they have room for just three non-conference games. Roberts wasn’t sure yet if those games would be played against local teams to avoid travel.

“It’s tough. Our schedule had been done for eight months, but it got burned, blown up and we had to start over,” Roberts said.

Newcomers

Beside the 5-foot-10 McQueen, the 2020 Deseret News Ms. Basketball, Utes have Peyton McFarland, a 6-foot-4 inside player from Boise, Idaho, Kelsey Rees, a 6-foot-5 center from Australia, Zuzanna Puc, a 6-foot-2 forward from Poland who had to redshirt last year after transferring from UTEP after playing there for three years who played three years and Isabel Palmer, a 5-foot-9 guard from Australia who played a year at Texas.

McQueen played for former Ute Keith Van Horn’s club team in Colorado and Roberts said Van Horn told her, “‘Lynne, you will regret it if you’re not coaching her.’”

Added Roberts: “I’ve been watching her the last few days and I’ve thought I would regret it big time if I wasn’t coaching her. She looks good and can really shoot it. She’s fearless. Just a competitor.”

Foreign players

Of the Utes’ 13 players, eight are from foreign countries, including three from Canada, two from Poland, two from Australia and one from Spain.

Beside Pendande and Torres, the Utes welcome back Niyah Becker (Canada), Maurane Corbin (Canada), Ola Makurat (Poland) to go with the three newcomers from overseas.

Roberts said it’s been a challenge getting them all back amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She said some parents have been nervous about putting their daughters on a plane right now, because “whether we all want to admit it right now, the way the United States is viewed right now is not positive. There’s all sorts of variables with international kids and new sets of circumstances for sure,” Roberts said.

COVID-19 testing

The players must start at 7 a.m. with daily testing and then wait 90 minutes for results before they can be cleared for the day. They then have to wear a wristband to prove they’re cleared. Roberts has been very impressed with her university and the way it has handled everything in regard to the pandemic but still worries.

“We can control what they do here, but what college kids do when they leave here is less predictable,” she said. “I’ve told our players, ‘Before you do something, just think worst-case scenario. We’ve been given this opportunity to play, so don’t play with fire and be reckless with that.’”