The bright lights splashed down on them as, one by one, Utah’s basketball coach and her players took their questions on Thursday afternoon, answering inquiries about the path traveled to their notable achievements in the days behind them, about the prospects for elongating that path to more glory in the days ahead.
They all responded with confidence, toughness and resolve. Even a dash of self-assigned humility, if that’s something that actually can be self-assigned.
“I’m very humble,” said Alissa Pili, the Utes’ star forward.
If anybody wants to add one more name, though, to their list of absolute badasses they would want to do battle alongside, Lynne Roberts should be included. When the coach was asked whether her team, despite making it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, had gotten enough credit this season, she replied flatly: “I … don’t … care. Probably not. No one in our locker room cares.”
And the look on her face when she said it. Whew. I’m telling ya, that’s the way they do it downtown.
But wait a minute, let’s hold it right there for a minute.
How to watch Utah in the Sweet 16
#2 Utah vs #3 LSU
Time: Friday, 3 p.m. (MT)
Location: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C.
Business there most certainly is yet to be attended to in an arena some 2,000 miles from their home on the basketball court at the Huntsman Center, but even Roberts could allow a few moments to go ahead and acknowledge something important. Namely, that these are good times, cool times, heady times, thrilling times for her and her hustling, bustling Utes.
They’re good and they know it.
“Everybody’s good,” Roberts said. “We’re grateful to be here. If you’ve made it this far, you’re a great team. I feel that way about our team.”
She does. She should.
The Utes have won 27 games this season and lost all of four, and while the next loss would put an end to the whole thing, pressure at this point can take its sorry carcass and all its negativity elsewhere.
There’s heavy lifting ahead. Utah is a betting underdog against LSU. But there’s appreciation for what’s already been, too. Nobody said even a steep climb couldn’t or shouldn’t be enjoyed.
It is and it is.
You’ve heard by now that these Utes have accomplished something Utah women’s basketball hasn’t done for decades — made it to the Tournament’s third round. Guard Kennady McQueen said that was the team’s goal long before the season started. And now, here they are, a 2-seed facing a 3-seed, the Tigers, on Friday in the Greenville (S.C.) Regional of the biggest of dances, fully intending to continue on to more dance moves, additional achievement.
“We’re not satisfied,” McQueen said.
“We’re a competitive bunch,” said forward Jenna Johnson. “We put expectations on ourselves.”
A Ute boot-scootin’ boogie it’s been, indeed, unprecedented in some regards, Utah winning a first-ever regular-season Pac-12 championship, and now also firing through to this point in the Madness. Moreover, it has a finalist for national Coach of the Year — Roberts — and for Player of the Year — Pili.
But wait, there’s more. The Utes have a collection of talent that sweats well beyond the names up on the marquee, the kind that in all that competition and perspiration melds a team together, a collection of contributors who have boosted those wins beyond what a whole lot of folks expected.
“We’re a close-knit group,” McQueen said earlier this season. “We’ve built relationships, it’s like playing with your best friends. [But] if you’d told me we’d be a top 10 team, I’m not sure I would have believed it.”
That was then, this is now.
“We’ve earned it, we deserve it,” she said. “We want to continue to prove we’re deserving of it.”
That was a theme on Thursday, under those lights, Roberts and her three team leaders — Pili, McQueen and Johnson — answering questions at the big event’s presser, while other players answered in their post-practice locker room, all of them talking unabashedly about themselves and their success in 2023.
As Roberts said it, they didn’t seem to care too much about getting national credit, but, on the other hand, they’d take a lack of it and use it to their advantage.
“We have an underdog mentality,” said Johnson.
“We’re still flying under the radar,” said McQueen.
“I think there’s a lot of people who don’t think we belong at this level,” said Pili.
Big whup, the Utes all figured.
Known or unknown, none of Utah’s prowess thus far is a surprise to Roberts, who figured her team to be potentially great all along. “Did I see this coming?” she said. “Yes, I did see this coming.”
She must have had keen vision. Over the past five seasons, the Utes had accelerated, bumped and skidded a bit, winning 20 games, then 14, then just five, then 21. It was last year’s wins that gave her hope and fueled her fire.
Two months ago, as the Utes were ramping up to so much winning, the coach said that although her team was acclimating itself to championship ball, they were nonetheless “playing at a high level. And I’m going to keep pushing our players. I’m dreaming big, thinking big, that’s who I am, trying to be the best.”
Her team was — and still is — playing big. The difficult challenge posed by playing in the Pac-12, a league she repeatedly bragged about on Thursday, calling it “the best league in women’s [college] basketball.”
Roberts said that as the season wore on, she was convinced her team could be if not the nation’s top team, one of the top teams, as long as one thing happened and another did not: “If we stay hungry and don’t get fat and happy.”
It’s a tricky thing, staying hungry while not getting fat.
Happy, though, they are, hungry they are. Hell-raisers on the floor they are.
Utah’s success this season can be traced to a hyper-focus on four basic strategies: Move the ball, create and take and make open deep shots, avoid difficult 2-point attempts and, at the other end, force the ball away from the middle of the floor, bumping opposing attacks, as Roberts put it, “out of comfort, out of rhythm.”
It’s precisely what they’ve done.
Against LSU, the Utes expect what their coach predicted would be “a track meet,” each team favoring an uptempo game, which, if it happens that way, will suit Roberts fine. “Our players are most confident when they get out and go.”
As the questions slowed, one of Roberts’ final answers, more a pronouncement, was most telling, most profound.
“We’ll be ready,” is what she said.