This is when Utah Utes women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts knew she had an NCAA tournament team

Seventh-seeded Utes will face No. 10 seed Arkansas on Friday afternoon

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah women’s basketball team waits to learn where and who they will play in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament at the team’s practice facility, Sunday, March 13, 2022.

Several weeks ago, Lynne Roberts was asked to name a game, or at least a moment this season, that led the head coach to believe that her University of Utah women’s basketball team could do something significant this winter.

Roberts did not have a good answer to that question at the time. The seventh-seeded Utes have since advanced to the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2011, with a first-round game against the 10th-seeded University of Arkansas set for Friday afternoon. Roberts, now in her seventh season in Salt Lake City, has since considered the question, and now has a very good answer at the ready.

By the time late January rolled around, Utah had begun putting together a reputable at-large resume, but there wasn’t a ton of room for error. The Utes had beaten teams they were expected to beat, but began a rugged early Pac-12 schedule at 1-3 with losses to conference powers Stanford, Arizona, and Oregon. On Jan. 28, they dropped a 68-62 overtime decision at home to Colorado to fall to 10-7 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-12. A scheduling quirk sent both teams to Boulder for the return matchup two days later.

That Jan. 30 matinee at the CU Events Center represented a fork in the road for these Utes on an afternoon where 100-plus game veteran Dru Gylten was unavailable due to injury. As Roberts tells it, that day was a must-win to keep Utah’s at-large hopes alive.

“Without Dru, we played well, and I mean, we won that game from tip to the end,” Roberts said earlier this week, describing the 78-67 victory. “We were up 19 at one point, and just their mentality, their fearlessness. There wasn’t nervousness, no feeling pressure. We just went out and competed.

“You’re looking back on it, I think that was a huge moment for the season.”

Beginning with the win at Colorado, Utah ripped off seven wins in 10 games to close the regular season. By the time the scene shifted to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament earlier this month, the at-large resume was stone, a bid to the NCAA Tournament a mortal lock. Just for good measure, Roberts coached her team to the program’s first Pac-12 Tournament championship game, including wins over tournament-bound squads Washington State and Oregon before staying with the defending national-champion Cardinal for three quarters of the title game.

Friday’s first-round matchup with the Razorbacks, which will be played at the Erwin Center at the University of Texas, is not the culmination, so to speak, of Roberts’ seven years at Utah, but is currently the clear high-water mark of her tenure.

The fact that it has taken this long for Utah to get here, and the road Roberts and her program have taken during that time, have only made this run more fulfilling.

Utah went to the WNIT in each of Roberts’ first three seasons. The 2018-19 team opened 18-1, complete with a win over No, 6 Stanford, rose to No. 14 in the AP Top 25, then things fell apart. A slew of injuries eventually left the Utes with seven healthy players. They lost nine of 11 games to close the season, Roberts eventually declining a WNIT bid.

A 14-17 mark the next season, last season’s COVID-impacted campaign finishing at 5-16, all the while dealing with players opting for the NCAA Transfer Portal.

Now, Utes guard Gianna Kneepkins is the best freshman in the Pac-12. Jenna Johnson is another top-end Pac-12 freshman. Gylten and Brynna Maxwell offer steady veteran presence. Former North Summit star Kennady McQueen has played a ton in her first two seasons, as has Peyton McFarland.

Recruiting has helped, but so too has staying the course after the bumps. Nothing rash, nothing out of the ordinary to try and get things going again. Roberts took Division II Chico State to four NCAA Tournaments, including the 2006 Final Four, by steadying things. Pacific, a West Coast afterthought, went to four WNITs under Roberts, and now Utah is back in the NCAA Tournament, with the legitimate possibility of more to come given the recent recruiting success.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah women’s basketball head coach Lynne Roberts is interviewed after Selection Sunday on March 13, 2022.

“I do think it is satisfying in that regard, just because of the amount of work we’ve put in and the fact that we’ve just kept our heads down and kept chopping wood,” Roberts said. “This is certainly validating on some level because you know your efforts and your process are yielding something. I believe things should be done how we want to do them. Those things will be validated in recruiting and all of those things, but personally, for me, yes, this is satisfying. I believe this is validation for our program.

“I’m just grateful this is my third head coaching job, because this is not a level I would want to cut my teeth on and be my first job, I’ll tell you that. I was blessed and fortunate to have opportunities to learn, and grow, and develop, and learn by doing some things wrong, and doing some things right.”

A lot more right as opposed to wrong is happening right now for Roberts and her program, and this weekend in Austin is a fresh, nationally-visible opportunity to show the type of progress that has been made.

A win over Arkansas Friday will likely give Utah a shot at Texas, winner of 11 straight, winner of the Big 12 Tournament.

“It just takes longer than you want it to,” Roberts said. “I think in athletics, coaches are the worst in terms of not being the most patient. Staying the course and just trying to do things the way I know they should be done in terms of integrity and putting people first, those things are important. It feels good to finally be kind of turning the corner in that regard, entering the national conversation.”

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