The Utah women’s basketball team entered the 2023-24 season facing unprecedented expectations — the Utes were tabbed the favorites to win the Pac-12 championship and began the year with a program-best No. 5 preseason ranking.

Time and time again, the Utah women’s basketball team had to rally together during a season where trials seemingly came in bunches.

Time and again, coach Lynne Roberts’ program proved willing to fight through those adversities.

“I’m proud of our team. We have set the standard. We raised the standard in our program that the NCAA Tournament is what we do. That’s the expectation. Pac-12 is over and now moving to the new conference, and our expectations don’t change in the Big 12.”

—  Utah coach Lynne Roberts

Yes, Utah fell short of its goal of surpassing where the team finished in the NCAA Tournament the previous season — the Utes made the Sweet 16 the year before, while they reached the Round of 32 in the NCAAs this season.

Still, the Utes made some history through a trying yet successful season where injuries to key players forced expectations to change.

It was a memorable season for several reasons, among them:

  • Utah made the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight year, its first time making that many consecutive appearances in the NCAAs since going to four straight from 1995-98.
  • It was the first time in school history that Utah has won an NCAA Tournament first-round game in three-straight seasons.
  • The Utes, playing their final season in the Pac-12, earned four wins over top-10 teams, a program best.
  • Those wins included a victory at No. 7 USC near the end of the regular season, their highest-ranked road win in school history, and a win over No. 2 UCLA at home, the highest-ranked win for the program ever.
  • The Utes, who finished the year with a 23-11 record, won 20-plus games for a third-straight season and for the 32nd time in school history.
  • Utah spent the entire season ranked in the top 25.

With a strong group of returnees again next season, it puts Utah in a favorable position as the school joins the Big 12 next year.

“I’m proud of our team. We have set the standard. We raised the standard in our program that the NCAA Tournament is what we do,” Roberts said. “That’s the expectation. Pac-12 is over and now moving to the new conference, and our expectations don’t change in the Big 12.”

Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) drives the ball against UCLA Bruins forward Gabriela Jaquez (23) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 22, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Highlights from the year

Utah went 10-2 during nonconference play, with the only losses coming away from Utah in setbacks to ranked opponents Baylor and South Carolina, this year’s national champion. In both games, the Utes lost by single digits and had opportunities to pull out a win in the fourth quarter.

In Utah’s eighth game of the year, Utah beat rival BYU — though the Utes lost one of their top players, Gianna Kneepkens, who broke her foot and was lost for the season.

That forced Utah to adjust who it was as the season went on.

After a slow 1-3 start to Pac-12 play, including a crushing home loss against Stanford, the Utes rebounded by winning six of their next seven games, including home wins against No. 2 UCLA and No. 6 USC.

Following the Utes’ overtime win over the Bruins that completed the Southern California sweep, Roberts used a term that defined her team all season.

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“I’m so incredibly proud of my team’s grit,” Roberts said. Her team was the aggressor and led the Bruins much of the night before UCLA captured the lead late, only to see Utah force overtime on its final possession of regulation before taking over in the extra session.

“For (UCLA) to take the lead there with a minute, whatever it was in the fourth, it would have been easy to just kind of fold.”

Kennady McQueen, who scored 21 points in the win, praised the team effort.

“Everyone stepped up tonight and it was awesome to see,” she said. “I mean, that’s a team full of firepower, and you got to see that tonight. I was so proud to see everyone step up and fulfill their role and succeed. It was awesome.”

Utah ended up sweeping the Trojans, who advanced to the Elite Eight, beating USC by 20 in Salt Lake City, then knocking off the Trojans by six in Los Angeles in late February just three days after losing by 30 at UCLA.

“We found a way, we stuck together. ... I thought we did a great job. So stinking proud of my team,” Roberts said of the win at USC.

The Utes ended up finishing the regular season sixth in the Pac-12, which sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts speaks during a press conference after a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024. | Young Kwak

An NCAA experience marred by racial allegations

Utah went 1-1 during the NCAA Tournament, beating South Dakota State in the first round before losing to host Gonzaga in the second round after getting sent to the Spokane, Washington, subregional.

That was overshadowed by an incident that forced the school to switch hotels during the NCAA trip.

In a statement, the school shared that the team — along with other students and school administrators — was subject to two incidents of racial harassment two days before their first game on the way to and from dinner near their hotel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the team was initially housed.

That’s about a 35-minute drive from host town Spokane.

After the incident, Utah worked with Gonzaga and the NCAA to find hotel accommodations in Spokane.

The school questioned the decision to house the team so far away from the host site.

“As we continue to heal, we remain very disappointed in the decision to assign our team to hotels such a great distance from the competition site, in another state. We will work with NCAA leadership to make it clear that being so far removed from the site was unacceptable and a contributing factor to the impact of this incident,” a statement from the University of Utah read.

As of this writing, no charges have been made in the case. Last week, Coeur d’Alene police said they did find an audio recording of a racial slur being used.

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) looks to shoot the ball while Washington Huskies forward Dalayah Daniels (14) posts up against her at the Hunstman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 2, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Who is leaving?

The Utes are losing quite a bit more this offseason than they did last year — Utah went into the 2023-24 season with five returning starters and 90.3% of its scoring production coming back.

The biggest position to fill will be that of Alissa Pili, who is expected to be a first-round pick in next week’s WNBA draft.

The All-American forward helped transform the Utes in her two seasons after transferring from USC, and she averaged 21.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in her final collegiate season while shooting 55% from the field.

I’m grateful I came to Utah and it kind of turned my whole life around. But I’m just grateful and ready for the future.”

—  Utah forward Alissa Pili

Pili won’t be easy to replace — she was a facilitator on offense, averaging 2.4 assists per game, and transformed her game by becoming a 3-point threat (making 57 on the year) while also providing tough defense, as she led Utah with 28 blocks.

“It’s just tough when you know that that’s your last college game and it kind of just flew by,” Pili said after the loss to Gonzaga. “I’m just grateful for it all. I’m grateful I came to Utah and it kind of turned my whole life around. But I’m just grateful and ready for the future.”

Forward Dasia Young, who has been in the Utah program the past three years, also exhausted her eligibility this season. She started 13 games this year, provided valuable experience and minutes throughout the season and had one of the year’s most memorable moments — beating then-No. 8 Colorado on a buzzer-beater.

“I’m glad that I came here. Everybody knows that. I say that every time I get a chance. Yeah, I wouldn’t trade anything for the world,” Young said.

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 the college women’s basketball 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

Guard Issy Palmer, a fourth-year Ute who missed most of the season with an undisclosed injury, was also a senior.

In her three games before the injury, she was averaging 14.0 points and 5.3 assists per game. While Palmer did briefly return after a 10-week absence, she reaggravated the injury and missed the remainder of the season.

The Utes sorely missed having Palmer, along with Kneepkens, in their guard lineup. Those two injuries forced Utah to shuffle roles, a process that took time.

Utah also reportedly has had two players, guard Lani White and forward Daniela Falcon Hernandez, enter the NCAA transfer portal since season’s end.

White, a fan favorite who announced her decision to seek a transfer, was often one of the first players off the bench for Utah, though her role didn’t change much from her freshman season.

Hernandez did not play as a true freshman.

Utah forward Jenna Johnson (22) reaches for a rebound next to South Dakota State guard Jenna Hopp (2) during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Saturday, March 23, 2024. | Young Kwak

Next season’s outlook

There are four players returning next year that have been a part of every NCAA Tournament team for the Utes the past three seasons.

One of them is the aforementioned Kneepkens, the all-conference guard.

Her return will be welcomed, as she was putting up career numbers through the season’s first eight games before she got hurt. Kneepkens was averaging 17.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 63% from the field and 54% from 3-point range.

Kneepkens is eligible to receive a medical redshirt, which would give her two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Her injury ended up defining the rest of the season — both good and bad — for Utah and Kneepkens, who was actively involved from the bench helping her team the rest of the year.

“Adversity hits — you either adapt and change, or you run away from it. And we’re not running away from anything,” Roberts said at the time.

Utah certainly found ways to adapt.

“We lost a really good player, Gianna Kneepkens. She was a really big part of us, and like Coach Rob said, we didn’t bat an eye,” Young said after the season ended. “We kept going, kept swinging. I think we’re the only team to beat top-10 teams four times.”

Forward Jenna Johnson and guard McQueen also will be back as three-year starters and vital leaders.

McQueen averaged 10.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists while making a team-high 67 3-pointers, while Johnson added 8.9 points and 5.6 rebounds while also providing some of the Utes’ toughest defense in the paint.

Ines Vieira is also a fourth-year Ute who became a full-time starter this past season and excelled in that role. She averaged 8.1 points and her 5.9 assists per game ranked 14th nationally.

Utah Utes guard Ines Vieira (2) shoots a layup during the college women’s basketball 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

Guard Matyson Wilke took some time to find her stride after transferring from Wisconsin, but she will be a key part of Utah’s starting lineup after asserting herself both defensively and offensively as the year went on.

During conference play, she averaged 9.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. Wilke also got her first taste of postseason play.

“It’s taken her a few months to kind of get her sea legs with how we play and how competitive the Pac-12 is, but I do feel like she’s playing at a high clip,” Roberts said of Wilke heading into the Pac-12 tournament.

“I think her ability to shoot helps Kennady out, to be able to attack because they’re not sagging off Maty like they might other players.”

Small forward Reese Ross played a lot as a true freshman, though her minutes decreased as the season went on. Still, she earned Roberts’ trust early in her career and showed flashes of settling into the speed of the college game.

Forward Samantha Crispe, a Boston transfer, was one of the first reserves off the bench through good portions of the season and could take on a bigger role next year.

Two other reserves — forward Alyssa Blanck, a BYU transfer, and center Nene Sow — could also return.

Three guards — Kylie Ray, Grace Foster and Brooke Walker — will also be joining the group as part of the team’s recruiting class. Ray and Walker are both rated four-star recruits by ESPN.

“We had a great season and we hit so much adversity, you know, with injuries and the roster we had going into the season and only had for three games,” Roberts said following the Utes’ final game.

“These guys never flinched, and those that we had healthy didn’t quit or feel sorry for themselves. They showed a lot of toughness.”

Utah is ranked No. 24 in ESPN’s way-too-early top 25 rankings for next season, an indication that the expectations will again be high for the Utes in their first Big 12 season.

“The return of a healthy Gianna Kneepkens will give Lynne Roberts a go-to player,” ESPN’s Charlie Creme wrote. “Replacing Alissa Pili’s production will be impossible, but Jenna Johnson, Palmer, Ines Vieira and Kennady McQueen give Roberts a solid group of veterans to put around Kneepkens for the move to the Big 12.”

Utah Utes guard Matyson Wilke (23) prepares to shoot a 3-point basket during a game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News