Alissa Pili has gone from ‘bullying boys’ on the football field to leading the Utes to NCAA Tournament wins

Pili grew up competing in football and wrestling in Alaska.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) collides with Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs guard Lauren Bevis (2) as she dives the ball to the basket of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Utah Utes women’s basketball team practices daily against grown men. Most of them played at a high level in basketball, some at the NAIA level.

But they all have a problem they just can’t seem to solve: Alissa Pili.

“Honestly, it’s comical because they can’t guard her,” junior forward Dasia Young said.

Pili, a junior forward and reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, is a 6-foot-2 powerhouse. In one possession during Utah’s first-round NCAA Tournament victory over Gardner-Webb on Friday when she scored a career-high 33 points and added eight rebounds and eight assists, she backed down junior forward Alasia Smith in the paint seemingly with the greatest of ease. She caught the ball, took two hard dribbles left, spun middle and scored, knocking Smith over in the process.

That sequence felt all too familiar to those who know Pili’s past. She’s always been a physical force on the basketball court, but the place she first learned to dominate athletic competition wasn’t on the hardwood, but the gridiron.

Pili’s athletic career started on the football field in Alaska as a third-grader playing on the offensive and defensive line. Her older brother, Brandon, was already playing, and she wanted to do everything he did. But she surprised everyone with how dominant she played against boys.

“She was on the defensive line right next to me doing pretty much the same things I was doing — bullying boys her age,” Brandon Pili said.

From football to basketball

Football was Pili’s first love, and she played from third through eighth grade. In sixth grade, she started wrestling and would do so against boys, but that didn’t last as long.

“Obviously, wearing those singlets, I hated wearing those,” Pili said with a chuckle.

Although Pili knew her wrestling days were numbered, she did learn some valuable lessons from that time in her life.

“It’s honestly the hardest sport that I’ve ever participated in,” Pili said. “It’s just a sport that just challenges you physically, mentally and all of that. And it’s an individual sport as well, so you’re all you got out there.”

Girls playing football is generally uncommon, as was also the case in Alaska, where Pili grew up. But she never got any lip from boys telling her she shouldn’t be playing because she’s a girl.

“I was really beating up on all the boys,” Pili said. “So they really couldn’t say nothing to me.”

While Pili was roughing up boys on the football field and wrestling mat, she was also honing her basketball skills. She was a little raw at first, barreling down the court and running into the occasional opposing player because she didn’t look up while dribbling.

But eventually, Pili ended up on travel teams and earned the reputation as one of the best players Alaska had to offer. By the time she graduated school, she was a well-oiled machine who won three Gatorade Player of the Year Awards for her state and earned the Pride of Alaska award from the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

Oh, and she won four state titles in volleyball and shot put, and two in discus.

Thriving at Utah

Pili was recently named second-team All-America by the Associated Press and the United States Basketball Writers Association. Those accolades, along with the one from the Pac-12, hold significance because before transferring to Utah from USC, Pili had lost her joy for the game amid dealing with injuries, a coaching change and family tragedy.

Brandon Pili said that in 2021, their family lost three members in the span of just one year. One of them was a cousin the same age as Pili, and the two grew up together and became like sisters. That was the same year Pili struggled at USC.

“That really, I think, matured her a lot to really just cherish life and make the most out of every opportunity you get because you never know what can happen,” Brandon Pili said.

When she transferred to Utah, Pili had a mission: get in the best shape of her life. She changed her diet and started asking for extra conditioning work even though conditioning was her “worst nightmare.” She built a connection with Lindsey Kirschman, Utah’s director of sports performance for women’s basketball.

“I’ve learned a lot from her and she’s helped me definitely just change my mindset into wanting better for myself and just having to strengthen and discipline to do so,” Pili said of Kirschman.

In all, Pili has learned to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“I’ve realized more and more that I have to put myself in situations and positions that I know would make me uncomfortable, but it’s also going to make me better,” Pili said. “At the end of the day, I think that’s why I’ve just strived so much over here is just that having that realization and a willingness to do that and to make changes and things like that.”

Utes coach Lynne Roberts said it seemed like her star player felt she wasn’t living up to her potential while at USC. The Pac-12 Coach of the Year has marveled at Pili’s growth this season.

“Those daily choices of how you’re eating, how you’re training, how you’re recovering, how you’re living off the court have been the difference for her,” Robert said. “And her discipline … has been incredible — I’m just so proud of her.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) pushes past Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs forward Alasia Smith (30) for a shot on basket of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Learning from football and wrestling

Pili’s main sport has been basketball for several years now. But she hasn’t forgotten how football and wrestling has helped on the hardwood. The main takeaways, she said, are being able to use her body and strength to get around a defender. This helps her when boxing out on rebounds.

More broadly, though, Pili discovered self-reliance through competing in sports young girls usually avoid.

“I think I just learned how tough I can be and kind of just proving to myself that I could dominate whether it’s boys or girls,” Pili said. “I think that really just showed me how strong I was as an athlete and just as a person.”

Young said when she was growing up, she wanted to play football. So the fact that Pili actually did that and excelled at it is an inspiration to her, she said.

“As a girl, I feel like, especially in those areas, like when you’re like 12 or 11, you wouldn’t want to be around guys or you’ll be nervous or timid to do that,” Young said. “But she wasn’t.”

Pili might still have some football player and wrestler in her. Roberts said the team’s male practice players have a “holy crap” look in their eyes when Pili boxes out or posts them up.

“She would have made a heck of a football player,” Roberts said.