The University of Utah women’s basketball team was set to open its 25-game schedule on Wednesday vs. Southern Utah, but COVID-19 had other plans.
The program will pause all activities due to a positive COVID-19 case and ensuing contact-tracing protocols, the athletic department announced Monday evening. The Utes’ opener vs. the Thunderbirds is off, as is a Saturday matinee contest against Utah Valley. Both games were to be played at the Huntsman Center.
“After consultation with our medical professionals, and out of an abundance of caution, those games will not be played, and the teams’ situation will be evaluated after that,” an athletic department statement read. “Our top priority is the health and safety of our student-athletes, and all of our decisions will be guided by that principle.”
Utah’s season will now consist of a 22-game Pac-12 schedule, beginning Dec. 4 at Oregon State and a trip to Oregon two days later. The home opener will now be played Dec. 18 vs. Arizona State.
The Utes were winless against the top teams in the Pac-12, one of the best women’s college basketball conferences in the country. Teams like Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA presented challenges, but Utah made hay against Washington, Washington State and Colorado, while breaking through late in the season against nationally-ranked Arizona State.
In hindsight, having a young team learn on the fly against a loaded Pac-12 offered critical experience moving forward.
“Sometimes the best way to swim is to get thrown into the deep end,” sixth-year head coach Lynne Roberts told The Salt Lake Tribune last week. “You look at us now, I think they just have a different look to them. We’re still young, but we’re more talented, more experienced and we’ve added some legitimate depth.
“We think we’re better than people think we are. This is a great opportunity, if we can stay healthy, to take a step up.”
When Utah opens its 25-game schedule Wednesday afternoon against Southern Utah, it will do so with its top three scorers back from a year ago, and nine of its top 11.
Sophomore guard Brynna Maxwell (13.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 26.5 MPG) was the first Utah freshman to earn All-Pac-12 honors since it joined the Power Five conference in 2011. Junior guard Dru Gylten started 30 games last season to become a backcourt mainstay, and 6-foot-4 sophomore Lola Pendande was an All-Pac-12 freshman team honorable mention after averaging 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Those three represent the crux of Roberts’ core, with Maxwell leading the charge after a productive freshman season.
“She’s wired differently, made for those big moments, wants it, revels in it,” Roberts said, “She is fearless, and I mean that in the best way possible. She’s special.”
In gaining legitimate depth going into the season, Roberts noted that junior forwards Andrea Torres and Niyah Becker, and sophomore guard Kemery Martin have all taken steps forward as rotation pieces. All three women played in all 31 games last season, with Torres (5.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG) starting 22 times.
Roberts is optimistic about her freshman class. Henefer native Kennady McQueen was named Gatorade Player of the Year three times and was a top-60 recruit out of North Summit High School. For what it’s worth, McQueen played her AAU basketball for Colorado Premier, which is headed by Utah men’s hoops all-timer Keith Van Horn.
Peyton McFarland, a 6-foot-4 forward from Boise, is another top-100 commit, while 6-foot-5 Australian freshman Kelsey Rees should have an immediate role.
“The two American kids have shown themselves,” Roberts said. “I didn’t know how ready Kennady would be for this level, but she’s just crushing it. She’s going to be a heck of a player for us.
“Peyton, honestly, has a WNBA body and she just looks like a pro. She’s getting better, but very coachable and will play quite a bit for us.”
The Utes will succeed if: Roberts believes that a handful of key rotation pieces have taken steps forward and that she has more, better legitimate depth on her roster. If that holds true, and Maxwell continues her ascension, Utah could finish in the top half of the Pac-12, which would be better than where most have the Utes projected.
The Utes won’t succeed if: Utah may have more, better legitimate depth, but the fact remains the pieces are mostly still quite young, including Maxwell. Utah was forced to grow up fast last season, and that will be the case again this season against a loaded Pac-12. If Utah’s maturation is stagnant, it could be a long season.
Bottom line: Utah remains inexperienced, but the youth went through trial by fire last season. Assuming that despite the pandemic, there’s some semblance of a legitimate season, Roberts has enough at her disposal to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, even in what is expected to again be a stacked Pac-12. An early-December trip to nationally-ranked Oregon State and Oregon could be telling.
UTAH WOMEN’S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Dec. 4 at Oregon State, TBD
Dec. 6 at Oregon, TBD
Dec. 14 at Colorado, TBD
Dec. 18 Arizona State, TBD
Dec. 20 Arizona, TBD
Jan. 1 vs. Washington State, TBD
Jan. 3 vs. Washington, TBD
Jan. 8 at USC, TBD
Jan. 10 at UCLA, TBD
Jan. 15 Stanford, TBD
Jan. 17 Cal, TBD
Jan. 22 at Arizona, TBD
Jan. 24 at Arizona State, TBD
Jan. 29 Oregon, TBD
Jan. 31 Oregon State, TBD
Feb. 5 at Cal, TBD
Feb. 7 at Stanford, TBD
Feb. 12 UCLA, TBD
Feb. 14 USC, TBD
Feb. 19 at Washington, TBD
Feb. 21 at Washington State, TBD
Feb. 28 Colorado, TBD
March 4-7 Pac-12 Tournament, Las Vegas