SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Big players show up in big games, and the Utes best player put on a career-best performance.
Alissa Pili set a career high with 33 points, to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists, as Utah cruised into the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament with a 103-78 win over Gardner-Webb at the Huntsman Center Friday night.
“I think just posting up hard whenever I had the opportunity,” said Pili, who made 12 of 17 shots from the field. “It was mostly my teammates finding me when I was in those 1-on-1 situations.”
Jenna Johnson added 20 points, as the Utes shot 59 percent from the field and eclipsed the 100-point mark for the first time in an NCAA Tournament game in school history.
Utah will face Princeton in the second round Sunday at 5:00 p.m on ESPN2. The 10th-seeded Tigers upset 7th-seeded North Carolina State, 64-63. If Utah wins that one, they’ll advance to the Sweet 16 for just the third time ever.
Pili and Johnson combined to make 22 of 31 shots as the Bulldogs struggled to keep the duo from relentlessly attacking the basket.
“I think it took a little bit to get going,” said guard Gianna Kneepkens. “We hadn’t played in two weeks, so to get the jitters out, we found a rhythm at the end.
This was Utah’s first game in 15 days since losing to Washington State in the Pac-12 Tournament.
“How we ended the Pac-12 Tournament definitely left a bad taste in our mouths,” said guard Kennady McQueen. “So coming out and putting on that offensive show made it feel a little better.”
The Utes advanced to Princeton on Sunday. The 10th-seeded Tigers upset 7th-seeded North Carolina State in the second game, 64-63.
Gardner-Webb (29-5) had a 21-game winning streak snapped and fell to 0-3 against Power 5 opponents this season. Jhessyka Williams scored 20 points for the Bulldogs.
Utah used a 14-0 run to carve out a 32-14 lead early in the second quarter. The Utes forced four turnovers over the final 3½ minutes of the first quarter to spark their game-breaking and held Gardner-Webb without a point for 4½ minutes.
The Bulldogs cut Utah’s lead to 58-50 in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Ki’ari Cain. That’s the only time the margin fell under double digits in the second half. Pili countered with a layup to spark a string of three straight baskets that pushed the Utes’ lead to 65-50.
Kneepkens chipped in 17 points and nine rebounds for Utah. The Utes had 32 assists on 37 baskets.
The Utes were the only women’s team to top the 100-point mark in the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
“We scored 100 points, but the statistic that stands out to me is the 32 assists on 37 made baskets,” said head coach Lynne Roberts. “That’s remarkable, and that’s the sign of an unselfish team.”
Alaisia Smith added 14 points and eight rebounds for the Bulldogs before fouling out in the final minute of the third quarter. Cain had 14 points and six assists.
Early foul trouble curbed the Bulldogs’ ability to play aggressive defense and put them in a deep hole before the end of the first quarter. Gardner-Webb racked up eight team fouls within the first six minutes of the game.
The Utes dominated around the basket from the opening tip. Utah clogged the lane on defense and attacked the paint nonstop on offense. The Utes outrebounded Gardner-Webb 44-30 and outscored the Bulldogs 60-26 in the paint.
Playing its first game in front of its home fans at the Huntsman Center gave the Utes a boost, and the energy helped propel them to victory.
“It was electric,” said Kneepkens. “Being in the NCAA Tournament period is a special opportunity. But to be able to do it in front of your home crowd is really awesome.”
“They gave us a little bit of energy,” said guard Izzy Palmer. “I think we were expecting a good turnout, but I think it surprises us every time to almost fill up the whole lower bowl, so it’s pretty cool.”