SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – For the first time since 2006, and for just the third time in school history, the Utes women’s basketball team is on to the Sweet 16.
Alissa Pili had 28 points and 10 rebounds to lead the second-seeded Utes to a 63-56 win over 10th-seeded Princeton 63-56 on Sunday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Coming into the game, the coaches told me they were going to key on me and so I just had to let the game come to me,” said Pili, who made 8-of-13 shots from the field.
But the Tigers didn’t ever let up. Near the end of the game after a hard foul, Pili squared up and stared down a defender.
“Oh, it was expected,” Pili said. “So I think just the main thing I tried to do was just keep my cool and keep my head down and keep working.”
Jenna Johnson added 15 points for the Utes, who made only one 3-pointer but still advanced to their first Sweet 16 since 2006.
“They’re a great defensive team,” said Utah’s Kennady McQueen, who had nine points. “They made they made every possession hard.”
Utah committed 20 turnovers and gave up 20 offensive rebounds, but held Princeton to just 27.8 percent shooting from the floor.
Kaitlyn Chen scored 19 points, Grace Stone had 16 and Ellie Mitchell finished with 18 rebounds, including 10 on the offensive end, for Princeton (24-6).
“We battled from minute 1 to minute 40,” Princeton coach Carla Berube said. “But the shots just didn’t fall tonight.”
Down the stretch, offense came to a grinding halt. The teams combined to miss 15 consecutive field goal attempts at one point, but Utah (27-4) got to the free throw line to advance and face No. 3 seed LSU.
“Hard work paid off, but we’re not done yet. I think we can make a run deeper into the tournament,” Pili said.
The host Utes didn’t score a field goal in the final 6:24 but went 13-for-19 from the line in the fourth quarter to complete their season undefeated at the Huntsman Center.
“It was a rockfight,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “We know we can score but you can’t always rely on that to win in these types of games.”
After the game, Utah coach Lynne Roberts was surrounded by her team and did a short rendition of “The Griddy” to the delight of the partisan crowd of 8,663.
“That’s our team in terms of keeping it light,” Roberts said. “Everybody does better when they don’t feel pressure.”
Pili is known for her power but she showed her remarkable agility and marksmanship as well. After she had made a 3 in the second quarter, she drove past two defenders, took a knee to the thigh and threw in a shot while falling to the floor for a three-point play.
The matchup highlighted a contrast in strengths. Utah’s No. 4-ranked offense (84.1 points per game) was pitted against Princeton’s sixth-ranked defense (52.8 ppg).
The Tigers, who had won 16 in a row, forced the game to their style but just couldn’t find enough offense, shooting just 27.8%. Princeton has never advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament but lost in close games the past two seasons.
After a 2-for-14 stretch for Princeton, Chen made two jumpers in a 7-0 run to cut Utah’s lead to 44-42 late in the third quarter. In the first half, the Tigers’ swarming defense created 13 turnovers, five by Pili, to keep them within striking distance.
Pili had 17 points at the break to help Utah to a 32-26 lead after Utah lost a 3-pointer that was ruled to come after the shot clock elapsed.
Utah’s physicality inside was evident early as Pili and Johnson combined to go 6-for-6 in the first quarter and the Utes jumped to a 20-10 early lead. The Tigers went 5:26 without a field goal, but they relied on the defense to settle in as they have all season.
“We can make a run even deeper in the tournament,” Pili said. “It means a lot just knowing that our hard work throughout the season is paying off, and we’re being recognized as one of the best teams in the country now that we made it this far.”
Pili and Johnson were powerhouses in the paint as Utah outscored Princeton 32-18 and that was enough to make up for the Utes’ lack of outside shooting. Utah made three fewer field goals but won on the strength of 28 of 37 from the line, while the Tigers were just 11-for-15.
Utah will take on LSU in the Sweet 16 Friday Greenville, South Carolina. The 3rd-seeded Tigers beat Michigan in the second round, 66-42.