NCAA Tournament: Utah advances to Sweet 16 despite ‘uncharacteristic’ performance against Princeton

Utes beat Princeton, 63-56.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) pumps her fist after making an improbable diving shot while being fouled as Utah hosts Princeton, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

The 3-point shot has been one of the Utah Utes’ biggest weapons all season.

Going into Sunday’s game against the Princeton Tigers, Utah was 15th in the entire country in 3-pointers made, averaging 8.5 per game. But against the Tigers, the Utes made just one.

That’s right — one.

It was their lowest 3-point output of the entire season. The previous low was three against Ole Miss last November.

Somehow, though, the Utes escaped the Tigers’ claws and advanced to the Sweet 16 behind a 63-56 win at the Huntsman Center in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They play Louisiana State University on Friday at a time to be determined.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) makes an improbable diving shot and is fouled as Utah hosts Princeton, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

“That’s very surprising, but I think it just shows we stick it out and we can score in other ways,” junior guard Issy Palmer said of the low 3-point number. “We don’t live or die by the 3. It’s one of our biggest looks, but going inside and getting second-chance points is a big key for us.”

Alissa Pili led the Utes with 28 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds. They combined to shoot 13-of-20 from the field. Pili had the team’s lone 3-pointer.

Utah shot just 1-of-15 from the 3-point line. Princeton does have the reputation of holding opponents to under 30% shooting from the outside, but many of the shots the Utes missed were open.

“I think [Princeton] scouted really well and knew we all could shoot the ball, and they tried everything they could to make the shots for difficult or just taking it away,” sophomore guard Kennady McQueen said. “I think it was also a combination of that and an off night.”

The lack of 3s was just one way the Utes didn’t play like themselves. They turned the ball over 20 times. They gave up 20 offensive rebounds, nine of which came in the third quarter.

Utes coach Lynne Roberts lamented those two stats specifically. She said they got “crushed” on the offensive glass in the third quarter, which was “embarrassing at times.” When it came to the turnovers, she said she “about lost my mind.”

McQueen credited Princeton’s defensive tenacity for Utah’s high turnover rate, but acknowledged some of them were self-inflicted.

“We knew Princeton was a great defensive team, and they were going to cause some of those,” McQueen said. “But some of them were just uncharacteristic sometimes and just some in our control.”

But Utah did manage to clean up the rebounding in the fourth quarter, and took advantage of Princeton playing the foul game. For Roberts, Sunday’s game still felt like Utah basketball.

“I don’t think it was not Utah basketball,” Roberts said. “We tried to share it. There wasn’t a lot of selfishness. We just made some uncharacteristic turnovers and just didn’t shoot well, and sometimes it is a rock fight. Sometimes that does happen. But it’s nice to still win. That’s the sign of a great team.”

Palmer played 26 minutes and did not score, missing all six of her shots, four of them from the 3-point line. Before the NCAA Tournament, there was a question about whether she would play after missing the Pac-12 Tournament with an injury. She scored five points in 17 minutes Friday in the win over Gardner-Webb.

After Sunday’s game, Palmer assured everyone she is healthy.

“I feel good,” Palmer said. “People go through slumps. I looked for my other teammates and that’s just how the dice rolled tonight. Hopefully it doesn’t carry on to the next game. But we survived and advanced.”

Sophomore guard Gianna Kneepkens scored only six points on 1-of-5 shooting. She said winning a game where Utah didn’t play its best gives the team confidence going forward.

“If [we] do play like how we know how to play, then we’re a really special group,” Kneepkens said. “So it’s good. We’ll be able to learn from this. It just keeps getting harder from here. So we’ll be locked in and ready to go next game.”