LAS VEGAS — In the aftermath of the Utah women’s basketball team’s highly competitive Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals loss to UCLA last week, Utes coach Lynne Roberts was asked about how she’s developed such a tough, hard-nosed group in Salt Lake City.

“Our football team’s the same way. We’re going to out-tough you. Things are never given to us. And so we earn it. I think we recruit players that buy into that. So I think because of that we’ve been able to endure all the adversity we’ve faced, all the injuries we’ve had, all the tough things we’ve had.”

—  Utah coach Lynne Roberts

“I think that’s part of our culture. Like, we don’t ever get the benefit of the doubt, whether it’s in rankings or 50/50 calls or — we never get the benefit of the doubt. You have to have a little edge. And that’s part of who we are,” Roberts said postgame after No. 20 Utah lost 67-57 against No. 6 UCLA, a team Utah’s coach said is capable of challenging for a national championship when the NCAA Tournament tips off later this month.

The Utes are a lock to make the NCAAs for a third straight season, after going 22-10 overall and finishing sixth in the ultra-competitive Pac-12.

Last year, Utah made a run to the Sweet Sixteen, and the team’s goal this year has been to build upon that finish and advance further.

Roberts is at the forefront of a Utes program that competes with a chip on its shoulder as it fights for respect — it’s a mentality familiar to Utah fans.

“Our football team’s the same way. We’re going to out-tough you,” Roberts said. “Things are never given to us. And so we earn it. I think we recruit players that buy into that. So I think because of that we’ve been able to endure all the adversity we’ve faced, all the injuries we’ve had, all the tough things we’ve had.”

‘Iron sharpens iron’: Utah confident the experience of Pac-12 play will help come NCAA Tournament time

Injuries have been a major storyline for Utah this season — All-Pac-12 guard Gianna Kneepkens was lost for the season in early December with a broken ankle, senior guard Issy Palmer has missed the majority of the season with her own injury, and there have been a variety of ailments that have held others out.

There have been some tough losses, too, like losing back-to-back one-score games against Arizona and Stanford that got Utah off to a 1-3 conference start, or an uncharacteristic loss to Washington on Senior Night.

Still, Utah has forged on and found success.

The Utes have beaten four top 10 teams this season and are among the nation’s top-scoring teams, all while playing in the toughest conference in women’s college basketball.

As a result, Utah is currently projected to be a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament in ESPN’s latest bracketology.

Junior guard Kennady McQueen, who’s averaged 10.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists this season, credits the Utes’ staff for bringing in the type of talent that complements the culture — players like Maty Wilke, the Wisconsin transfer who’s turned into the team’s third-leading scorer (9.4 ppg) since league play began and is equally known as being a tough defender.

“Our coaching staff does a great job of recruiting players that come in, see our picture that we want to paint here at the University of Utah. They do a great job from the moment recruits step on campus,” McQueen said.

Alissa Pili, the Utes’ All-American forward who’s 20.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game for a team that’s frequently had to adjust its identity, said Utah, which has spent the entire season ranked in the top 25, is built to adapt.

“I think this whole season we faced so many things, like injuries to like concussions and things like that and players being out for a short amount of time,” Pili said.

“I think we just are used to bouncing back and that’s just what this team does. Like Kennady said, that’s the type of players that coach recruits. That’s the culture at Utah. I’m just lucky to be a part of that, and it’s a lot more fun and I think easier to buy in when you have a team full of players who think the same way.”

Roberts has stayed the course of being realistic where Utah stands in the realm of the Pac-12 and on the national level, while also expressing confidence that the Utes are up for any challenge.

Earlier this season, they stayed close with No. 1 South Carolina before falling by nine.

Utah beat then-No. 2 UCLA in overtime at home, the highest-ranked team the Utes have ever beaten, and they swept No. 3 USC, who won the Pac-12 tournament championship.

Against Colorado in an instant classic, the Utes built an 18-point lead before blowing in late in the game, only to have senior Dasia Young hit the game-winner in the lane as time expired.

Utah Utes players pile on Utah Utes forward Dasia Young (34) after her basket in the final seconds brought Utah up to win 77-76 during game between the Utah Utes and the Colorado Buffaloes at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

It’s moments like this that showcase just what this Utah team, which is currently ranked No. 11 in the ever-important NET rankings, is capable of.

“Let’s not take away the fact that this team has beaten four top 10 teams. We’ve won 22 games. Our NET is (11). Like, that’s pretty dang good,” Roberts said.

She’d like to see the narrative about her team change as the Utes prepare for the NCAA Tournament. They’ll find out their NCAA fate on Sunday at 6 p.m. MDT — the selection show will be broadcast on ESPN.

“The narrative isn’t about what we’ve done, it’s about what we’ve lost — Issy Palmer and Gianna, that’s 34 points a game and we’ve still done well,” Roberts said.

“I’d like the narrative around this team to change a little bit. We deserve it. They deserve it. It kind of ticks me off that our body of work and the narrative is, like, oh man — I don’t buy that.”