How Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer helped Lynne Roberts and the Utes get it together

The No. 8 Utes will face No. 4 Stanford on Friday night in Palo Alto in a critical Pac-12 matchup.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah head coach Lynne Roberts looks on in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Stanford, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

As Lynne Roberts’ phone rang, she saw who was calling and couldn’t help but be a little surprised.

This was January 2021, in the middle of a college basketball season marred by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the positive tests and protocol mandates that went along with it. It was a trying season for Roberts and her University of Utah women’s basketball, who would finish at 5-16 overall and 4-15 in the Pac-12.

When Roberts’ phone rang, the Utes were not far removed from being blown out by No. 1 Stanford at the Huntsman Center in a game attended by no one thanks to the Pac-12 banning fans at games.

Roberts answered her phone. Cardinal head coach and Naismith Hall of Fame enshrinee Tara VanDerveer was on the other end.

VanDerveer’s message: “Lynne, I don’t want to see another coach at Utah. You need to get your crap together.”

“And it was awesome,” Roberts said Wednesday morning after practice as her eighth-ranked Utes prepared to face VanDerveer’s fourth-ranked Cardinal on Friday night in Palo Alto. “It was kind of like you get hit between the eyes with a bullet. We just talked about what that meant, what she saw, and I look back on that. ... After the season, I followed up with her. ‘Tell me what I don’t see. I’m in the fog, I’m in the weeds with it.’”

VanDerveer was more than willing to offer advice.

“She’s been great that way,” the Utah coach continued. “She’s trying to help me, even though if we get better, we have the potential to beat them. That’s not what it’s about for her because she’s totally secure in what they’re doing. It’s a cool trait to have.”

Yes, VanDerveer is there to help Roberts — but only on the 363 days out of the year when their teams are not playing each other. Friday night will be one of those other two instances, and it brings with it an interesting dichotomy.

VanDerveer and Stanford have long been among the gatekeepers of women’s basketball in the Pac-12, if not in the West, with three national championships, 13 trips to the Final Four, and 26 conference regular-season championships dating back to 1989. Rarely has the standard fallen, especially since the turn of the century when trips to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend became commonplace.

Roberts and Utah have been building toward something, and will enter Maples Pavilion believing they are capable of taking a step forward. VanDerveer urged Roberts two years ago over the phone to get it together, and she and her staff have done just that.

Utah advanced to the championship game of last season’s Pac-12 Tournament, where a 73-48 Cardinal win belies the fact that the Utes made things more than difficult for three quarters. The program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years, including a first-round win over Arkansas, acted as the precursor to right now.

The Utes are 15-1, the only hiccup coming just two weeks ago at Colorado. They are considered a top-tier team within a top-tier Power Five league as the Pac-12 currently has six teams ranked, and a whopping eight projected to make the NCAA Tournament, per ESPN’s latest bracketology offering earlier this week.

It is one thing to be considered a top-tier Pac-12 team, but it would be quite another to walk into Maples and win. Whatever the expectations and possibilities are ahead of playing Stanford, those would rightfully rise if the Utes head to Cal on Sunday looking for the Bay Area sweep.

Two things to keep in mind: Utah is 1-30 all-time vs. Stanford, and the Cardinal are coming off a road loss at USC last week, so at a minimum, Roberts expects VanDerveer to be mad Friday night.

“People rarely do (win at Maples Pavilion),” Roberts said. “So I’m going in with the mentality of, are we able to do this? Heck yeah, but it’s not a pressure situation. I’m excited to see how our team competes. They’re coming off a loss, they’re the best at bouncing back. She gets their attention, so this is going to be the toughest game we’ve played so far. I want to see how we do.”