After leaving USC, Utah women’s basketball’s Alissa Pili has fit in ‘perfectly’ with her new team

Pili transferred to Utah after three seasons with the Trojans. The Utes face USC on Friday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) tries to make a play in basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Dec. 10, 2022. After transferring from USC, Pili has become a leader for the Utes this season.

Gianna Kneepkens remembers what it was like to be on the other side of Alissa Pili’s competitiveness.

“One play I remember is she set a screen on me and, man, was it a hard screen because she’s very strong,” the Utah women’s basketball guard said.

Now both players are on the same side of the University of Utah women’s basketball team as it prepares to face USC, where Pili played her previous three seasons before transferring to Utah. Pili has been a driving force for the No. 9 Utes in her first season, averaging 20.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 61.9% from the field.

Pili transferred to Utah because she was no longer happy at USC. It was during summer workouts with her new team when she started to rediscover her joy for basketball.

“I think it was just a really fun system to play in, and just being around ... the girls, they’re great people and just being around teammates like them just made it a lot more fun,” Pili said.

Pili will play against the Trojans on Friday for the first time this season as a member of the Utes. There hasn’t been much conversation about that around the team this week, though, and coach Lynne Roberts does not want to make it a topic of conversation more than it has to be.

“We’re certainly not gonna make it a big deal,” Roberts said. “It’d be humanly impossible to not have a little bit of that in your brain. But she’s a competitor. She wants to win. And I think she wants us to win more than it’s about USC.”

Roberts added that Pili has not been involved in helping the team scout the Trojans.

“We haven’t even asked,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to put her in that position and I think it distracts from her doing what we’re doing. I’m sure I could ask her but I don’t want to.”

Pili said that while it will be fun to play against her old teammates, Friday’s game will be just another one on the schedule in her mind.

“It’s not really anything different besides I have friends on there,” she said. “So it’s always fun competing against some of my friends.”

Pili feels she’s fit in “perfectly” within Utah’s coach and team culture. She praised Roberts’s ability to connect with each player on a personal level as well as on the court. And she gushed about the cultural diversity of the players on the team.

“It’s just cool to see everybody come together and care about each other like we do,” Pili said. “I think that just shows [in] the accomplishments we’ve had on the court, just how well we’re meshed together and how well we get along.”

Kneepkens, who is one of Pili’s housemates, said her Alaskan now-teammate was “a little intimidating” when they played against each other last year. But as she’s gotten to know Pili, she’s discovered that she’s really a “teddy bear.” The two have become close friends.

“She’s easy to talk to and she’s fun to be around,” Kneepkens said.

Pili said her final year at USC was largely “a blur” because she wasn’t in the right mindset and not taking care of herself. Because of that, she didn’t remember much about playing the Utes — other than the result of one particular game.

“I just remember we got our butts whooped when we played [in Utah],” Pili said.

Pili enjoys setting screens because it allows her to use her physicality, which she likes to do. Nowadays, though, she’ll take it a little easier on her teammates when she’s setting screens, she said. So Kneepkins won’t be hurting so much after run-ins with her.

“It’s cool that she’s on our side now,” Kneepkens said.