SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – The 10th-ranked Utah Utes landed the final blow in a four-quarter thriller on Sunday at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, exciting the largest crowd of the season with two last-second free-throws by Alissa Pili to prevail 80-79 over the 14th-ranked Arizona Wildcats.
“What a great crowd we had today,” said head coach Lynne Roberts. “They were in it. It was loud. That was really fun. What a great game. Arizona’s good, and I thought it was just back-and-forth the whole time.”
In a game that was tied nine times in the fourth quarter, and saw eight lead changes in the final frame, Pili and the Utes found just enough in the tank to outlast each Arizona run, and improve to 15-1 on the season, 5-1 in Pac-12 play. Arizona drops to 14-4, 4-3 in the Pac-12.
Pili finished with a game-high 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, for her eighth 20-point game of the season. Gianna Kneepkens followed with 20 points and a team-high seven rebounds, shooting 7-of-11 from the field and scoring nine consecutive Utah points at one point down the stretch, which helped Utah lead 78-75 with 22 seconds to play. Pili would score the Utes’ final two points on a pair of clutch free throws with 0.01 seconds on the clock, after being fouled on a shot following a long pin-point inbounds toss by Kneepkens.
Arizona had pulled to within one point, at 78-77, on a jumper in the paint by Paris Clark with eight seconds remaining, and after a Utah turnover on an inbounds play after a Utah timeout advanced the ball to midcourt, Arizona took the lead, 79-78, on a layup by Clark with 1.6 seconds on the clock. Utah called timeout to set up the last-second heroics by Kneepkens and Pili.
Clutch baskets by Dasia Young, Issy Palmer and Kennady McQueen, and some key defensive plays from up and down the roster in the second half, contributed to the heart-stopping win before a loud and engaged crowd of 2,915, the Utes’ largest of the season.
Arizona scored the game’s first seven points before Utah responded with a 6-0 run of its own, setting up a first quarter that saw four lead changes over the remainder of the quarter. The Utes took their first lead, 15-14, at the 2:59 mark when Pili made a layup. She finished the quarter with 11 points, followed by Palmer with 8, including a three-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer to end the frame with a 25-22 Utah lead.
Utah stretched its lead to 31-26 in the second quarter, but then went 3:45 without a field goal, and Arizona took advantage with a 6-0 run to retake the lead, 32-31. The Utes battled back to take a 42-40 lead into the locker room at halftime. Pili had 17 first-half points on the strength of making all seven of her field-goal attempts.
The Utes turned up the defensive pressure in the third quarter, limiting Arizona to 31.3-percent shooting (5-16), building their largest lead of the game, at 55-47, with 2:20 to play in the period. The Wildcats fought back to within one point with a 6-0 run late in the period, entered the fourth quarter trailing 56-53, then tied the game at 56 early in the fourth on a three-pointer by Jade Loville, setting the stage for the fourth-quarter drama.
“I just love that we didn’t panic,” Roberts said. “We didn’t panic (because) we work on end-of-game situations all the time. We’ve run that before in practice. And Alissa (Pili) just made a heck of a play. Caught it, the pass, and then Alissa had enough time to gather, go up and draw the foul, which is great. Just big time players making big plays in big games.”
Utah had its best shooting period in the fourth quarter, making 9-of-15 field goals (60%), and ran its record to 11-0 this season when scoring 80 or more points. Utah has scored 80 or more points in 13 of its last 20 games, dating back to last season. Roberts’ eight seasons coaching the Utes the team is 51-5 when scoring 80-plus.
Utah hits the road again for a Friday, Jan. 20, matchup at No. 2 Stanford.