No. 15 Utah women’s basketball flashes a new way to win at BYU — with defense

A young Utah roster showed it can win in multitude of ways — an important step as the upstart Utes eye a March run.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU battles Utah in basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022.

Provo • Lynne Roberts smiled, seemingly relieved, as the question was posed to her.

Maybe it was because it finally wasn’t about offense, a rarity for the head coach of the most explosive offensive team in the country. Or maybe it was simply because she really wanted to highlight this specific sequence. Either way, Roberts launched into full coach-mode when the chance arose.

The possession she was talking about came with 3:52 left in the game, when Roberts subbed in junior guard Dasia Young. The Utes were giving up layup after layup to BYU guard Nani Falatea, a product of high ball screens and poor ball pressure. Utah’s lead was in double-digits, but it was closing fast.

So when Roberts put in Young, it wasn’t for scoring. She isn’t one of six players averaging double figures on the Utah roster. Instead, it was for ball pressure and her ability to switch seamlessly from a press to knocking a ballhandler off her path. And for the last four minutes of the game, BYU scored only six points. Falatea didn’t score again.

From that point on, Utah cruised to a 17-point win, 76-59, over BYU (4-6). It wasn’t about the offense. It was about the defense, more specifically the defensive adjustments, that pushed the No. 15 Utes to an 8-0 start on the season.

“I told them, ‘We don’t even have to score again, we just need to defend and get rebounds,’ " Roberts said, still talking about the late defensive sub of Young. “We also didn’t give up an offensive board until the 45 seconds. … Some our kids that normally produce didn’t have great shooting nights. Didn’t shoot for percentage. But that is the best thing about having a balanced team.”

Utah, at least nationally, will be known for scoring 97 points per game. And Saturday night will still likely be remembered as the time Utah knocked off its biggest in-state rival, and did so in ostensibly convincing fashion.

But the true significance of what transpired at the Marriott Center will have more to do with a young Utah roster showing it can win in multitude of ways — something that is ever important as the Utes eye a run in March.

Sure, Utah beat No. 16 Oklahoma earlier this year by scoring 124 points. It took down Alabama by putting up 93. This, though, was a sign that in order to beat Utah, one of the best teams in the country, you can’t simply keep its shooters cold.

Jenna Johnson, who averages 13 points per game, was held without a field goal and finished with two points. Kennady McQueen, who normally adds 12.6 points per game, went 1-of-7 from the field and 0-for-5 for three. Isabel Palmer also finished a couple points below her average.

But Utah still found enough. The defense did its job. Other scorers also made up for the production. Alissa Pili scored 28 points, and Gianna Kneepkens poured in 18.

“This game was really a challenge of our mental toughness,” Pili said. “To really stick together through some adversity. This is a big milestone for us to win this game.”

In the context of the season, too, this defensive performance was maybe another sign this team isn’t all offense. It held Ole Miss to 67 points in late November. But in almost every big win this year this year, Utah has gotten an explosive offensive output.

Not tonight.

Roberts joked after the game about some theories as to way the offense was held under 80 points for just the second time all season. The Utes prepared for a zone all week, she said. BYU never played a single possession of it.

She could joke about it, though, because tonight it didn’t matter. The defense stepped up.

And Utah took another step too.