Inside the small media room, just off the north tunnel in the bowels of the Huntsman Center, University of Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts sat, with Kennady McQueen to her left and Gianna Kneepkens to her right.
The three women were just minutes removed from helping preside over a basketball carnival, a 124-78 demolition of 16th-ranked Oklahoma stamping the 25th-ranked Utes’ return to the AP Top 25 for the first time since Feb. 14, 2019.
Kneepkens, a sophomore and last season’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, had 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting to lead six Utes in double figures. Utah shot 54.9% from the floor, and while doing that on a whopping 82 shot attempts seems outrageous, the Utes produced an even more outrageous stat against the Sooners, averaging 1.44 points per possession. As a point of reference, a PPP of 1.0 generally means you have a good offense.
As Roberts addressed a local media contingent that was at least triple the size of a normal Utah women’s home game, she did some reminiscing.
“When I took this program over, my goal was to make Utah basketball nationally relevant,” said Roberts, who took over ahead of the 2015-16 season. “It’s validating to see that starting to happen, but it’s not because of me, it’s because of our players. We’ve got talented kids who have bought in and they’re doing everything the right way, whether it’s making the extra pass, getting sleep, eating right, they’re doing everything, working their tails off, so they can enjoy moments like this.”
National relevancy began showing itself last winter when the Utes advanced to the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament, returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, and beat Arkansas in the first round before bowing out to Texas two days later.
There was more reminiscing Wednesday night about last season, specifically a late-December trip to face Oklahoma for the front end of a home-and-home agreement.
Roberts is in her 21st season as a head coach across three different schools. That is long enough to understand that college basketball scheduling is an inexact science. When you agree to multiple-team events more than a year in advance, or home-and-homes that bleed into two or more seasons, you’re trying to project what your team could be down the road, and whether or not that particular matchup lines up with what you think you have at your disposal. You can’t predict injuries, and the NCAA Transfer Portal has radically changed year-to-year roster dynamics, but the point stands.
Last season, Roberts thought she had enough to walk her team into a Power Five building before Christmas. For three quarters, she was right as Utah built an 11-point lead, only to have the Sooners rip off a 32-point fourth quarter to steal an 83-76 decision.
“I think just knowing what happened last year, it puts a chip on your shoulder,” said McQueen, a Henefer native who missed last season’s matchup. “I wasn’t able to play in the game last year, so I was just super excited to be given the chance to play with my teammates against Oklahoma. From the start, we said pedal to the metal, so I just tried my best every play, whatever that looked like, I tried to make sure I did that.”
On Wednesday, things were different.
The game marked only the second time in program history, and the first since early in the 2000 season, that Utah hosted a non-conference matchup between top-25 programs. There was enough local buzz that a lively, engaged crowd of 2,521 showed up, including a legitimate presence from The MUSS, which had not been the case for any of the three homes the men’s team has played.
If this was anyone’s introduction to the Utah women’s program, they got the quintessential experience, which very well might up the national relevancy given who the opponent was and what the final margin of victory wound up being.
The Utes play an aesthetically-pleasing style of basketball. They shoot, and make, a lot of 3-pointers, they get up and down the floor, and they defend, often for 94 feet. McQueen and Kneepkens, specifically, are electric when they have it going like they did on Wednesday.
One particular sequence offered the loudest crowd pop on a night full of them.
Early in the third quarter, Kneepkens drilled a triple to extend Utah to a 61-41 lead. On the inbounds pass, Oklahoma’s Madi Williams threw the ball away in the backcourt. Jenna Johnson scooped it up and found a trailing McQueen, who hit a right-wing trey, prompting a Sooners timeout.
In the third quarter alone, the Utes shot 14-for-20, including 5-for-8 from deep, and assisted on 12 of the 14 makes.
Those types of numbers, and other cartoonish ones like 124 points and a 1.44 PPP are not going to be present every night, especially against a loaded Pac-12, but Utah has risen to the point where not only are the Utes expecting to win every game, but there’s probably an expectation from the outside that they can beat most anyone they face.
How’s that for national relevancy?
“Just everyone out there was unselfish,” Roberts said. “When you’ve got a group that’s playing as hard as we did, as unselfish as we did, I couldn’t be more proud.
“Just a great night to be a Ute, that’s for sure.”