Why you should be paying attention to the undefeated Utah women’s basketball team

Q&A: Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts talks undefeated start, team chemistry, and outside perception of the program

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah women’s basketball head coach Lynne Roberts shows her discontent with the referees as the University of Utah hosts the Oklahoma Sooners in women’s NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

The University of Utah women’s basketball team has enjoyed a season and a half of major success.

It went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year and finished 21-12 overall. And this year it has started off undefeated at 12-0 with Pac-12 play around the corner.

So what has been the key to the Utes’ start in 2022-23, and how much better can they get? The Salt Lake Tribune caught up with coach Lynne Roberts to address those topics and more.

The following question and answer session was edited for length and clarity.

What is your assessment or perception of how your program is perceived on the outside?

I don’t know. What I would love is for Salt Lake City to become more engaged with our program. I think if you look at the top 10 teams right now, top 15, our attendance is probably not the best of those. And if you talk about sustaining success and cutting down nets and hanging banners, home crowd and atmosphere and community support goes hand in hand with that. It matters to recruits. It matters to our players. That piece — there is no secret, but teams that take off when their community gets behind them, it just propels them further. So I don’t know how we’re perceived. But I have a hunch that it’s not as wide a brushstroke of awareness as I’d like. And it’s not like anyone owes us anything, but I know we play a fun style. I know we’re a winning program. We’re No. 2 in the country in scoring, No. 1 in assists. We’re averaging 93 points a game. That’s fun to watch. So I would love for the community to get behind us a little more, to get to know our program and our players more. I think they would enjoy it.

What has contributed to how well the team is playing and how good the chemistry seems to be right now?

There’s a number of variables. But I think primarily, it’s that we had a great season last year, made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and we have the majority of our team back. So even though they were young last year, most of our experience last year was youth. We started, I think, three freshmen and two sophomores or something like that. So now they’re back, they’ve had a taste of the Pac-12 championship game, second round NCAA Tournament. So that experience and kind of that next-level hunger is part of it. The other part is talent. We’ve got some really good players. Our roster is full of highly recruited kids that have chosen to be at the U and love it. We want to do something that’s never been done here, or do things that have never been done here in women’s basketball. And then I do think our system and style of play plays to their strengths and is a fun system to play in. They’ve totally bought in.

Has there been a moment or a game where you felt like, “OK, maybe this team can be really special?”

I think that Oklahoma game. We played at Oklahoma last year, right before Christmas, and they beat us. We were up 17 going into the fourth quarter, but then we ended up losing. So our team was ticked off and ready to play them. But I didn’t see us winning by 46 and scoring 124 points. So in that game — I think at the time, they were 16th in the country — I had a moment of, I thought we could win. And I really believed we would out of arrogance. We were ready. I didn’t see that coming. So I think after that, we all kind of thought, ‘Oh, wow. I think we’re pretty good.’

When you win a game like that, is there anything in your mind that kind of changed about your team?

I don’t think so. We made it to the second round of the tournament last year. And this year, we want to go farther — Sweet 16 and beyond. I think all that win did — and then the subsequent wins. Then went on the road and beat Alabama — they’re an NCAA Tournament team. We beat Ole Miss in a really close, hard-fought game, and they’re an NCAA Tournament team. I think all it’s done is validate and provide some genuine confidence. Not like, ‘I think we could be this good. But it’s like, ‘OK, we’re playing to the potential and how do we continue to get better and not be satisfied with where we’re at?’

What are the higher levels that this team can still get to?

[Tuesday], we were at Weber and we won by 36. It was not a challenging game, but I don’t think we played to our potential at all. So I think it’s that balance of playing to our standard, not to the standard of who we’re playing. No knock on Weber, but it wasn’t about them. It was just, we kind of were casual and lacked a little intensity and all that kind of stuff. So what that looks like on the court is not very many rebounds, too many turnovers, fouling, that kind of stuff. So I just want to continue putting together 40 minutes of playing to our potential and then let the score take care of itself.

Last year, I think we finished number seven in the country in offensive efficiency. We scored a lot. We knew we could score. But our defense wasn’t — we were I think 11th in defensive efficiency in the Pac-12. So it’s like, OK, we know we can score, but can we get stops against great teams? So that’s been a major focus, and that continues to improve. We’re leaps and bounds better defensively than we’ve been, but we can always get better at that, too.

Who are the anchors you’ve discovered throughout this year trying to be a better defensive team?

I think Kennady McQueen — from Henefer, Utah — I think she’s one of the best defenders in the league. She was honorable mention All-Pac-12 last year. Dasia Young comes off the bench. She’s just a big, strong athlete that can can really disrupt some things. And then a Inês Vieira, who plays the point guard spot, is the quickest player I’ve ever coached. I even said [Tuesday] night to one of my assistants when we were sitting there — I said, ‘I would not want Inês guarding me.’ She can just be so disruptive. So I would say those three on the perimeter. And then we’ve got some shot blockers and some basket protectors, too.

How would you characterize the chemistry of this team off the court?

This is my 21st year as a head coach. I’ve learned by making mistakes in recruiting of, if it walks and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. The old saying — my grandpa used to say it — is: When someone shows you who they are, believe it. So I’ve learned to just recruit good kids. In doing so, I recruit kids that really care about school, they’re seemingly tight with their families, and they’re just feverish and passionate about hoops. So we can come from different backgrounds, different countries, different whatever. But if you have the same values, chemistry is pretty easy.

So we’ve got really good kids that want to win more than they want to score 20. They want our program to do things that have never been done more than they want themselves to do those things. But that’s because they’re just quality kids. So we recruit to that, and it’s made all the difference. The chemistry has been phenomenal. The last season and a half, we’ve just got great kids that have bought into it. It’s fun to coach.

What are your specific goals for the conference season? What sections of the conference schedule that might be difficult?

I don’t know that I’ve looked at it that far. I try to stay really present with who’s next. And again, I’ve learned from making mistakes of trying to predict where we might be and get too far out ahead, and then you end up tripping when you’re not looking at what’s right in front of you.

On the women’s side, the Pac-12 is the best league in the country. We’ve got five teams in the top 18 [in the Associate Press Top 25] right now. We’re one of them. But everybody’s good. You’re gonna play a top-20 team every weekend, so they all matter. Odds are we’re not going to go undefeated. I don’t know that anyone will in this league. So you just have to continue to focus on the process — I know this is cliche coach talk, so I apologize — of just getting better every week and knowing that it’s gonna be hard every weekend and play to our potential and let the outcome take care of itself.

I certainly want to be in the top four when it’s all said and done because then you get a bye in the Pac-12 tournament. That would be huge.