No. 8 Utah women’s hoops outlasts No. 3 Stanford for share of Pac-12 title

Gianna Kneepkens scored 28 for the Utes, who will be the No. 2 seed at the Pac-12 Tournament

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) and Utah forward Dasia Young (34) celebrate the Utes 84-78 win over the Stanford Cardinals, in PAC-12 action, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

Thirty minutes after the buzzer sounded on the biggest win of her career, not to mention a landmark moment for her program, Lynne Roberts entered her postgame news conference Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center.

Had an athletic department official not pulled her off the floor and escorted her through the tunnel to the media room, she surely would have been out on the floor for at least another 30 minutes, but probably longer.

Basking in the aftermath of No. 8 Utah’s 84-78 win over No. 3 Stanford, for those 30 minutes, Roberts was essentially the mayor of one of college basketball’s underrated cathedrals.

She addressed those out of the announced crowd of 9,611 who had stuck around for all the postgame pomp and circumstance. She took part in cutting down the net, signifying a share of the Utes’ first Pac-12 regular-season championship. She took part in the trophy ceremony on a makeshift dais, then, donning a Pac-12 championship T-shirt, with that net hanging from her left shoulder, Roberts signed as many autographs as possible, took as many selfies as possible, returned as many hugs as possible before finally having to retreat through the North tunnel.

This win, those moments, that crowd, all of it helped shape Roberts’ vision for what she wanted Utah to be from the time she showed up here in 2015. Through some lean years, that vision remained. No one was going to take it from her. There are bigger games to play this season, the Pac-12 Tournament next week and the NCAA Tournament the week after that, but Saturday mattered more than just another regular-season game.

“Yeah, I did envision it,” Roberts said matter-of-factly. “To create something, you have to have a vision, and I did envision it. Sometimes, people told me I was crazy to think that was possible, but I knew it was and it’s incredibly satisfying to have it happen.

“That’s my job, and I’m stubborn, and I wanted to believe it couldn’t happen. I knew we could do it, I knew it could happen. Salt Lake City’s an incredible place. They love their Utes, and that’s one of the reasons I took this job. I knew it was a challenge, but if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to show you that we can.”

Utah (25-3, 15-3 Pac-12) having to go through Stanford (27-4, 15-3 Pac-12) to get this done was not lost on Roberts. Coached by Naismith Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer since 1985, the Cardinal have spent much of her tenure as the preeminent women’s basketball power on the West Coast, and certainly the gatekeeper of the Pac-12.

Roberts has told stories of VanDerveer reaching out to offer guidance during those aforementioned lean years, and the two have formed a bond, but that needed to be put to the side on Saturday.

It didn’t take long for a tight first-half whistle to become an overwhelming factor in a game between two teams fighting for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Roberts rolled with Alisa Pili and her two fouls to open the second quarter, only to have the Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate pick up her third and sit for the remainder of the half with 8:58 left.

Along the way, Issy Palmer and Kesley Rees each picked up three and Jenna Johnson sat with two, while Stanford’s own POY candidate, 6-foot-4 senior Cameron Brink, picked up two, as did star guard Haley Jones. In spite of it all, Utah got the better of play through that second quarter to take a 40-34 halftime lead.

That lead ballooned to as many as 12 at 52-40 with 6:52 to play in the third, but Stanford kept coming, kept chipping away, kept defending. With Roberts needing to play something of a chess match with her lineup in order to keep the foul problems at arm’s length, every time it looked like Stanford was ready to assume full control, the Utes had an answer.

Stanford was within two at 57-55 after a Hannah Jump 3-pointer, but Kennady McQueen’s fastbreak layup helped stem the tide. The Cardinal got to within two again a short time later, but Pili knocked down a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from straightaway to give Utah a 62-57 lead going to the fourth quarter.

The teams traded early fourth-quarter triples with Utah up six. Stanford within one with 2:29 left? Gianna Kneepkens for 3 to extend the lead to four. From there, it was a parade to the foul line, Utah going 6-for-8 over the last 1:27 and 26-for-33 for the night.

Kneepkens, a former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and one of the great recruiting gets of Roberts’ tenure, hit five 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 28 points on just 13 shot attempts in 36 minutes.

“It’s incredible,” Kneepkens said. “The trust Coach Rob has in me and all of us, I think that’s why we all do so well. We don’t have to play tentative out there, we can play free. It was awesome, and having that crowd just elevated it.”

Utah will enter the Pac-12 Tournament as the No. 2 seed and will open play in a Thursday quarterfinal (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) against the winner of Wednesday’s first-round game between No. 7 seed Washington State and 10th-seeded Cal.

The Utes are currently projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and are all but assured of hosting the first two rounds of a four-team pod as one of the top-16 overall seeds. Selection Sunday is March 12.