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‘Most talented team we’ve had’: Opener is suddenly a league game, but Utes plan to contend in Pac-12 women’s basketball race

Coach Lynne Roberts says this pandemic-plagued season is still important to her upward trending program after Utah is picked to finish in lower half of best league in women’s college basketball

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Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts.

Associated Press

Don’t call this a throwaway season for the University of Utah women’s basketball team.

Coach Lynne Roberts says her program has some climbing to do nationally and in the Pac-12 pecking order, and she might just have the right mixture of talent, experience and youthful enthusiasm to get the job done.

“I really like my team. … This is the most talented team we’ve had since I have been at Utah, certainly the deepest team,” Roberts said last week. “So I am really excited to get going, and we are just praying we get to have a season.”

The Utes, picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 in both the media and coaches’ polls, were preparing to open their truncated season Wednesday against Southern Utah at the Huntsman Center, but that game was canceled due to concerns over the spread of the virus, as was Saturday’s game against Utah Valley.

The program announced Monday night it is pausing “all basketball activities for the time being due to COVID-19 positive case and resulting isolation of additional student-athletes under contact tracing protocols.”

“I really like my team. … This is the most talented team we’ve had since I have been at Utah, certainly the deepest team. So I am really excited to get going, and we are just praying we get to have a season.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts

Now Utah’s opener will be a league game at Oregon State on Dec. 4 in Corvallis, Oregon. Spectators will not be allowed in Pac-12 venues per the league’s COVID-19 policies, rules that will be revisited in January. 

Roberts, who is entering her sixth season at Utah with an 86-71 record, says this is the squad that can get the program over the hump. Utah is returning four of its five top scorers from last year, most notably all-Pac-12 First Team selection Brynna Maxwell (13.1 ppg.) and honorable mention pick Dru Gylten (6.9 ppg.).

Utah returns 77% of its scoring, as Lola Pendande (10.8) and Andrea Torres (5.9) are also back to build upon last year’s run at the Pac-12 Tournament.

“Honestly, I don’t know that anything changes for us, even though it is a bonus year (because the NCAA is granting student-athletes a free year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic),” Roberts said. “We want to take a big step forward and finish in the top half of this league.”

That’s a lot harder than it sounds, considering the Pac-12 is “the best league of women’s basketball in the country, hands down,” Roberts said. “It is not an opinion, it is proven.”

Five Pac-12 programs — No. 2 Stanford, No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 UCLA, No. 10 Oregon and No. 18 Oregon State — are in The Associated Press preseason top 25, tied for the most in any league.

“I want to be a top 6 team (in the league),” Roberts said. “If you are a top 6 team, you are a No. 4 seed or better in the NCAA Tournament.”

Utah hasn’t played in the Big Dance since 2011, when it fell to Notre Dame in the first round.

“We are getting better,” said Roberts, who received a contract extension last year through 2023. “We just got to get to the point where we leapfrog a couple people, and then you can kinda continue to climb. Even though this is a bonus year, it doesn’t change the mindset, or the approach, or the goal, in my mind.”

Utah’s roster is tall — 10 players are 6-foot or taller — and has a distinct international flair. Nine players hail from outside the United States.

Because of the pandemic, the Utes haven’t been able to scrimmage against other teams, or bring in former players to go against in practice, so Roberts said the squad is eager to see some new faces to compete against Wednesday.

Also, it has some new players to show off. Roberts brought in the No. 20-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to ESPN. Newcomers include Kennady McQueen of North Summit High, Peyton McFarland of Boise, Idaho, and Donna Ntambue of Montreal, Quebec.