With a game-winner against No. 8 UCLA, Utah’s Alissa Pili shows why she is raising the program’s ceiling

With 23 points and nine rebounds, Pili helped Utah to its best win of the season

Utah's Alissa Pili, shown during a game against Oklahoma in November, scored the game-winning layup against UCLA on Sunday. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate, File)

At first they brought two, and then they brought three.

And when three defenders weren’t enough, they threw bodies and arms at Alissa Pili every time down the floor — hoping against all hope that somebody, anybody, would beat them except the USC transfer who has turned the Utes into a legitimate national contender.

But even UCLA knew it as the clock ticked under eight seconds. Hope wouldn’t be enough. The Bruins had exhausted all options and this game — a ranked matchup between the No. 8 Bruins and No. 9 Utes — would run through the 6-foot-2 forward who punched above her size.

And so on the final offensive possession, Pili found herself at the top of the key with a small lane to her left. With each dribble, another UCLA defender converged onto her. Until, with 0.8 seconds left, Pili took on three defenders, and saw two more trailing, as she rose up through the bodies to sneak in the game-winning layup.

A 23-point effort that had picked apart UCLA in pretty much every way imaginable was capped off in the most fitting way possible for a 71-69 win. Never mind that it was her second game-winning shot against a Top 25 team in the past month. This one was different.

This win, at home, was the highest-ranked win of Utah’s 18-2 season. This win gave the Utes breathing room in the Pac-12 standings, clearly signifying the class of the conference now runs through Stanford and Salt Lake City — as crazy as that might have sounded a couple of years ago.

But more than anything, it was a win that showed just how much Pili has changed the dynamic of this program. As she dissected one of the better teams in the country, she alone kept Utah afloat for large stretches of the game. Now, regardless of how the game goes, Utah feels it can compete with the best.

“You recruit good players and then just get out of the way,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said.

Pili took it and ran with it. When the Utes needed baskets in the first half, she posted up bigger defenders and found easy points. Her 10 first-half points kept Utah within three at the intermission.

Later on, when good looks were hard to come by for the rest of her teammates, she used the extra attention on her to find open shooters and create good looks.

It was a mix of physicality and near-clinical decision-making that allowed Pili to control the game.

“We have stuff that clears out for iso for her, and if you are going to double she can kick it out for great shooters,” Roberts said. “You are gambling defensively.”

It wasn’t like Utah played well outside of Pili. It trailed for 30 minutes and shot just 27% from three. The main drivers of offense behind Pili were all held to single digits. Had this been last year, Utah would have lost this game.

But with her in the lineup, things can change against a top-10 team.

“Play-calling was hard, everything was hard,” Roberts admitted. “We didn’t play super connected there in the first half. … But just an incredible finish. That is what great players do. They make plays with the game on the line.”

And Pili delivered that too when things looked bleak. Utah’s offense sputtered, going 0-of-7 from the field heading into the final two minutes. It had a scoring drought of 2:30 after the final media timeout.

Yet on a fast break, Pili stepped into an open 3-pointer and buried it to tie the game with under 35 seconds. One play later, she won the game outright.

Asked after how many different looks she saw, she only had one word.

“A lot,” Pili smiled. “They were keying in on me. We kind of knew that was going to happen. It just opened up a lot for my shooters outside. I just try to make a smart play and not force anything.”

Roberts followed that up by saying Pili couldn’t be surprised by it, “She is a pro.”

Admittedly, for Utah, nobody really knows where this season will go. That is the nature of doing something the program has never done, as another week in the top 10 awaits.

But with Pili in the lineup, Roberts feels comfortable that Utah will always have a chance.

As Pili walked into the locker room, Roberts shouted that she needed an ice bath. The response from Pili was that everything hurt.

After doing everything, and being everything, for the Utes, the response made sense. And for this program, the hope is that she rests up and does it again.