The University of Utah women’s basketball team has arrived at the Pac-12 Tournament, where, as the No. 10 seed, it will face seventh-seeded Washington State Wednesday night at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.
Predictably, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, steering this team through the winter and into the postseason hasn’t always been smooth, but it has actually been a smoother ride than other Pac-12 teams have had.
“It’s been hard, I’m not going to lie,” sixth-year Ute coach Lynne Roberts said on a Zoom call last week. “This is my 21st year as a head coach, and this has by far been the hardest, just in terms of fatigue. It’s just draining, and honestly, I have a lot of buddies that coach at this level and we’re all in the same boat. It doesn’t matter if you’re third in the country or .500, everyone is having a hard time.”
In an effort to better control things in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pac-12 in November decided to institute a 22-game schedule, which offered a true double round-robin with everyone playing each other, home and away.
The regular season is now over and if you take stock of where each of the 12 teams are, the fact Utah got 19 conference games played is a win. No one was able to get the full 22 games in, but the Utes’ 19 league contests are more than nine other teams played and less than just one, Stanford, which managed to get 21 games played. Like Utah, Washington State also played 19.
Playing 19 games in this COVID-impacted environment took a little bit of luck, but more so, it is the byproduct of Roberts’ team adhering to strict athletic department and Pac-12 medical protocols. The middle portion of this season, getting 19 games in, that’s the good news.
The bad news is, Utah’s season is going to be bookended by COVID-19 troubles.
A Utah athletic department spokesperson on Monday told The Salt Lake Tribune that, after contact tracing in the wake of Sunday’s regular-season finale vs. Colorado getting canceled, the Utes would travel to Las Vegas on Tuesday and play Wednesday, but would do so without its full roster in tow. The athletic department declined to elaborate on how many players would be available.
The original plan was to travel Monday, but that was put on hold and Utah’s participation was temporarily placed in doubt in the wake of Sunday’s cancellation.
All of this echoes the beginning of Utah’s season, which saw a Nov. 23 program pause due to a positive COVID-19 case and the resulting isolation of student-athletes under contact-tracing protocols. That early-season situation cost the Utes their Nov. 25 opener vs. Southern Utah, plus a Nov. 28 visit from Utah Valley.
Utah finally opened Dec. 6 vs. then-No. 10 Oregon. While they wound up having games vs. Cal on Jan. 17 and the Ducks on Jan. 29 postponed, those had to do with COVID issues with the opponent, not with Utah.
“I still love my team, I still think this was the best team we’ve had at Utah, but not having a preseason, other factors, it’s been hard,” Roberts said. “Life’s not fair and I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for us, but it’s been really, really hard. What I preach to my players, I preached to myself. You have to keep showing up every day, you have to keep chopping wood and that’s the key to success in my opinion.”
Utah (5-15, 4-15 Pac-12) is 3-9 all-time at the Pac-12 Tournament since becoming a member of the conference ahead of the 2011-12 season. Wednesday’s winner will face No. 2 seed Arizona Thursday night in a quarterfinal. The Utes were swept by both the Cougars and Wildcats during the regular season.
2021 Pac-12 Tournament
Wednesday, first round
No. 5 Oregon State vs. No. 12 Cal, Noon
No. 8 USC vs. No. 9 Arizona State, 3 p.m.
No. 7 Washington State vs. No. 10 Utah, 6 p.m.
No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 Washington, 9 p.m.
No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 5 Oregon State/No. 12 Cal, Noon
No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 8 USC/No. 9 Arizona State, 3 p.m.
No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 7 Washington State/No. 10 Utah, 6 p.m.
No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 6 Colorado/No. 11 Washington, 9 p.m.
6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Saturday, championship game
6 p.m., ESPN2