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NCAA women: Utah puts together a complete and record-setting performance in Big Dance rout of Arkansas

Sophomore guard Kennady McQueen hits six 3-pointers en route to 20 points in Utah’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2009

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Utah guard Gianna Kneepkens (5), guard Kennady McQueen (24) and teammates celebrate their win over Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament.

Utah guard Gianna Kneepkens (5), guard Kennady McQueen (24) and teammates celebrate their win over Arkansas in a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament, Friday, March 18, 2022, in Austin, Texas.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — A bunch of questions were posed to the University of Utah women’s seventh-seeded basketball team as it traveled to the heart of Texas to play in an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2011 against a gritty, athletic Arkansas team from the SEC.

Could they control their nerves? Could their wide-open, 3-point blasting style translate to the Big Dance? Would all those long-range shots fall in an unfamiliar arena?

Yes, yes and yes.

Playing one of their most complete games of the season, the high-scoring Utes made 15 of 31 3-point attempts and trounced No. 10 seed Arkansas 92-69 at the Frank Erwin Center on the campus of the University of Texas in a first-round game Friday afternoon.

“Of course it’s always good to hit your first couple of shots. Yeah, that put a smile on our face to get going how we wanted to.” — Utah guard Kennady McQueen on the Utes’ 10-0 start against Arkansas

The Utes will face No. 2 seed Texas on Sunday in a round of 32 game with a Sweet 16 berth on the line. Not bad for a team that went 5-16 last year and starts two freshmen and two sophomores.

Utah (21-11) jumped out to a 10-0 lead, controlled the game most of the rest of the way — save a 6-0 run by the Razorbacks (18-14) to start the second half — and scored the most points in a March Madness game in school history.

It was a flat-out clinic from seventh-year coach Lynne Roberts’ team, from start to finish. The Utes answered the bell, and their doubters, at every turn.

“For it being everyone’s first NCAA Tournament game, I am pretty proud of it,” Roberts said. “I thought we played true to form. We just shot the ball really well. Twenty assists on 32 baskets, that’s pretty stinkin’ good.”

The Utes not only shot 51.6% from the field and 48.4% from 3-point range, they took away almost everything similarly-built Arkansas wanted to do on offense. The Razorbacks shot 35.4% from the field and a frosty 4 of 23 (17.4%) from deep. 

Star Razorbacks guard Amber Ramirez, hounded all game by Utah defensive ace Kennady McQueen, was 10 of 28 from the field, but only after making her last three shots. She had a game-high 24 points, while Samara Spencer and Makayla Daniels added 18 apiece.

The Utes were much more balanced, which is their game. Rookie jitters? Forget about it.

“They have never shown nerves this season, and I think that’s a testament to our leadership, to Dru Gylten and kind of our upperclassmen. But it’s also a testament to just the mindset of this group,” Roberts said. “We have bought into the concept of staying neutral this year. We don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”

McQueen was the player of the game — on both ends of the floor. The former Deseret News Ms. Basketball from tiny Henefer, Utah, and 2A North Summit High scored 20 points on 6 of 9 shooting from deep and 2 of 2 from the stripe and also had four assists and a steal.

“Kennady, it felt like she didn’t miss a single shot tonight, so that was super fun,” said fellow guard Gianna Kneepkens.

Kneepkens, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, had 16 points, while fellow freshman Jenna Johnson had 12 and Kelsey Rees posted a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“We followed our game plan offensively and defensively, and I think we just executed,” McQueen said. “I think we moved the ball super well, and everything went well.”

That’s an understatement.

The Utes put together one of their best halves of the season to take a 44-27 lead at the break. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead as Arkansas missed its first five shots, and just kept pulling away. Only 10 turnovers kept Utah’s lead from growing bigger; Utah finished with 19 turnovers, about the only wet blanket on an otherwise flawless performance.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to not turn the ball over like that against Texas, if we play them,” Roberts conceded.

Gylten had four of those first-half giveaways, but also recorded six assists in 11 minutes while battling foul trouble and moved past Erika Bean (542) and into fourth-place on Utah’s career assists list. The senior finished with 11 assists and six points and now has 548 dimes in an outstanding four-year career.

The 11 assists tied Utah’s single-game NCAA Tournament record, while the 15 3-pointers is the new Utes’ standard for an NCAA Tournament game.

“No one on our team is selfish. No one is trying to do too much within the system,” Roberts said. “We did a really good job defending the 3 and not fouling because they have some athleticism where they can turn the corner and beat us just on foot speed, and we didn’t bail out. We didn’t do the bail-out foul. Yeah, it was a very complete game against a really good team.”

The Razorbacks were 0 of 11 from 3-point range in the first half, then missed their first three of the second half before Sasha Goforth hit one from the corner. They were 3 of 24 from deep. Ramirez was 2 of 12.

Arkansas started the second half on a 6-0 run, but Johnson’s free throw and Kneepkens’ driving basket righted the Utes. The No. 10 seed got no closer than 10 the rest of the way. A 20-0 run midway through the fourth quarter pushed the lead to 30 points in the laugher.

“I think our depth was a key today, too. We didn’t seem to get tired. I think in that third quarter they got a little tired, and we were able to just kind of keep pushing,” Roberts said. “But yeah, great fourth quarter, and it’s a fun way to win.”

McQueen and Kneepkens served notice that it was going to be Utah’s night when Kneepkens hit a two-pointer, McQueen hit a 3 and then Kneepkens followed with a 3. Rees added a pair of free throws, and before the Hogs could get out their trademark “Wooo Pig Sooie” chant they were down double digits.

“Of course it’s always good to hit your first couple of shots,” McQueen said. “Yeah, that put a smile on our face to get going how we wanted to.”

And answered a lot of questions in the process.