‘We will be back’: Utah women falter late in championship loss to No. 2 Stanford, but say the Pac-12 hasn’t seen the last of them
Defending national champion Cardinal outscore weary Utah 41-18 in the second half, cruise to 73-48 win at Mandalay Events Center in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — Moments after the University of Utah’s Cinderella run in the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament came to an end at the hands of arguably the best team in the country Sunday afternoon, spirited Utes coach Lynne Roberts had a message for fans and fellow conference teams alike.
The Utes will be back, she said from the podium as television screens all around the room showed the No. 2-ranked Stanford Cardinal cutting down the nets at Michelob Ultra Arena.
Stanford broke from a two-point halftime lead and rolled past the weary Utes 73-48 in the championship game.
“I am motivated to get back here and actually climb the ladder to cut (the nets) down, and it will happen,” Roberts said. “We will do it. We will be back.”
“If (Cameron) Brink and (Haley) Jones are both going good, they will cut down the nets in Minneapolis again. ... They are better than they were last year, and last year they were the national champions.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts on Stanford.
The final score shows a 25-point Cardinal win, but the box score shows how Stanford (28-3) had to outscore the Utes 41-18 in the second half to avoid what would have been a monumental upset.
Utah went toe-to-toe with one of the NCAA Tournament favorites for two and a half quarters.
“At halftime, it didn’t look good for us,” said Stanford’s legendary coach, Tara VanDerveer.
Later, she mentioned how Utah had played three games in three nights before getting Saturday off, and, “they didn’t seem to have their legs in the second half as much.”
Utah (20-11) was looking OK when Kelsey Rees hit a layup the first minute of the second half to knot the score at 32-32, and when Brynna Maxwell drained a jumper with 6:42 remaining in the third quarter, Stanford led by just three, 39-36.
Then the Utes hit a wall, for whatever reason. Actually, there were plenty of reasons, most attributable to fatigue.
“I thought we had a good first three quarters, and then in the fourth quarter we just couldn’t make a basket,” Roberts said, “so they were getting our live misses and running down and scoring quickly.
“It just felt like the wheels fell off a little bit in the fourth. We missed shots that we typically hit. You have to give credit to Stanford, again.”
Utah’s terrific freshmen, Jenna Johnson and Gianna Kneepkens, have carried the Utes this season, but both were ailing Sunday and neither played well.
“Yeah, they went 2 for 15, which is so unusual for them, combined, so yeah, there is no greater teacher than experience, and they will get better from this,” Roberts said.
“We did miss their scoring, but I thought Brynna had a great game, did a really nice job.”
Maxwell led the Utes with 16 point on 6 of 12 shooting, but no other Utah players reached double figures. Dasia Young scored nine points, all in the first half.
Tournament MVP Haley Jones led Stanford with 19, while Cameron Brink added 16 and Lexie Hull 15.
With celebrities such as Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis looking on, the Cardinal slowly got it going to serve notice that they are the team to beat at the end of March.
Kneepkens and Johnson made the all-tournament team for the Utes.
Roberts said Kneepkens hurt her shoulder in the regular-season home finale against Oregon and has a “stinger” that has been bothering her, while Johnson has a lingering foot injury.
“For the first time, (Kneepkens) maybe looked a little less sure of herself, and Jenna Johnson, too,” Roberts said. “Both those guys are banged up.”
Johnson, who was 1 of 9 for two points in 17 minutes, was in so much pain before the game that there were questions whether she could play or not.
“But she fought through it for our team, which I appreciate and respect,” Roberts said.
Stanford came out firing, hitting 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, and took a 21-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. Things looked bleak for the Utes, but as they’ve done all season, they scrapped back.
Senior point guard Dru Gylten beat the shot clock with a long 3-pointer in the second quarter and Utah trimmed the deficit to 32-30 at halftime.
Gylten said the most memorable shot she has made in her career was a layup “with the wrong hand” to beat Stanford when she was a freshman, but Sunday’s felt good on the big stage.
“We call her Logo Dru,” Roberts said as Gylten admitted she’s know for “jacking up shots from the volleyball lines” at Utah home games.
“I really enjoyed making that one, though,” Gylten said.
Utah was 6 of 11 from deep in the first half, matching the Cardinal shot for shot in the second quarter. Stanford had the lead because of 10 second-chance points, and a 17-13 rebounding advantage.
Maxwell’s four-point play with 48 seconds left in the third quarter cut the deficit to seven, 50-43, but Hull and Brink started the fourth quarter off well and Utah simply ran out of gas in playing its fourth game in five days.
“If Brink and Jones are both going good, they will cut down the nets in Minneapolis again,” Roberts said of Stanford, which likely will get the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament because previous No. 1 South Carolina was upset by Kentucky in the SEC championship game Sunday.
“They are better than they were last year, and last year they were the national champions,” Roberts said.
As for the Utes, who played for the second-straight game without starting center Peyton McFarland, they will focus on getting healthy.
“We could have used McFarland tonight, that’s for sure, just with the size Stanford has,” Roberts said. “… We had a lot of people playing in a game of this caliber and intensity for the first time.”
Roberts said the blowout loss won’t define Utah’s season, but the way they got to the championship game will, along with what they do in the Big Dance.
The NCAA Women’s Tournament Selection Show is next Sunday. Roberts said the Utes, who have a NET ranking of 25, deserve “at least” a 7 seed.
“I think we should be in the upper half,” she said. “To compete in this conference, to have 20 wins, is (big). I don’t like to toot our own horn, but I think we should be one of the top 32 teams.”