NCAA Tournament: Utah women’s hoops overwhelms Gardner-Webb to advance to second round

Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili finished with 33 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs guard L'Mia Littlejohn (3) pressures Utah Utes guard Isabel Palmer (1) of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Gardner-Webb University women’s basketball coach Alex Simmons and her staff sat down earlier this week to scout the University of Utah ahead of the two sides meeting in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Simmons came up with a plan that had the Bulldogs believing they could walk into the Huntsman Center on Friday night and deal with the Utes, the No. 2 seed in Greenville Regional 2, who haven’t lost a game at home this season.

The Bulldogs can scout and prep all they want, but the fact of the matter is, the Big South is not offering them the opportunity to see a versatile, do-everything player like Utes star Alissa Pili. When the Pac-12 Player of the Year began operating on Friday night, Gardner-Webb didn’t quite know what to do about it, and ultimately, it didn’t have much of an answer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs guard Lauren Bevis (2) and Utah Utes forward Jenna Johnson (22) battle for possession of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Pili, a second-team All-America selection by the Associated Press, produced a tour de force, finishing with a career-high 33 points on just 17 shots, eight rebounds and eight assists as the Utes overwhelmed 15th-seeded Gardner-Webb, 103-77, in front of a boisterous late-afternoon crowd of 7,130 at the Huntsman Center.

Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 20 points on 10-for-14 shooting, five assists, and four rebounds as Utah (26-4) advances to Sunday’s second round against No. 10 seed Princeton, a 64-63 winner over seventh-seeded North Carolina State in Friday‘s nightcap. Tip-off time for Sunday was due to be released late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

“I’ve been on that side of it where you watch film and you go, ‘Okay, we’ve got this,’ you know what you’re going to do. then you get out there and it’s not as — everything is easier on film,” Utes coach Lynne Roberts said. “It’s that Mike Tyson quote of ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’

“It’s such a luxury to have a player like that.”

It was clear early that Gardner-Webb, which had won 21 straight games entering the night dating back to a Dec. 20 loss at Appalachian State, was comfortable defending the post 1-on-1, so Pili and Johnson were happy to take advantage of that.

On Utah’s second possession of the night, a defender fronted Johnson deep in the paint, so Pili, working out high, simply dumped the ball over the top to Johnson, who dropped in a layup to open the scoring.

That same scenario, a defender fronting Johnson and Pili lobbing a pass over the top for a layup, played out two more times in the opening quarter, with both including continuations. Those three plays set a tone. The Bulldogs soon dealt with foul trouble, and Utah got anything and everything it wanted at the rim.

For the night, the Utes finished with a whopping 58 points in the paint and were plus-14 on the glass.

“I feel like we have so many weapons offensively, so I think if the defense takes away one, we can just have another one,” Johnson said. “So we’re getting a lot of points down low early and then when they try to collapse on us, we can kick it out and hit 3s. I think that’s really, really hard to guard, and we’ll take whatever the defense gives us.”

Added Simmons: “Our team was a little shocked because of certain things when we finally were able to see Utah in person. Scouting is one of my favorite things to do as a coach and as a head coach, and I thought we came into the game with a great game plan. I think foul trouble really got us out of the flow of what we wanted to do, but again, the way they shoot the 3, the way Alissa Pili finishes inside, it’s always going to be a tough matchup no matter who they play.”

Utah, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in 3-pointers per game and No. 2 in 3-point percentage, shot 7-for-16 from deep on Friday night. Gianna Kneepkens hit two on her way to a 17-point night on 6-for-8 shooting from the floor.

Among the things at stake in Sunday’s second round, Utah will finish the season a perfect 16-0 at the Huntsman Center. Its 26 wins are two shy of tying the program single-season record, held by Elaine Elliott’s 2006 team, which is also the last Utah squad to reach the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.