Utes lose a bitter Sweet 16 matchup to LSU, but vow to come back better next year

Sophomore Gianna Kneepkens had 20 points and eight rebounds in a 66-63 defeat.

(Mic Smith | AP) Utah's Alissa Pili (35) fights for control of the basketball with LSU's Kateri Poole (55) during the first half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game of the women's NCAA Tournament in Greenville, S.C., Friday, March 24, 2023.

Utah coach Lynne Roberts knows the future is bright.

Her Utes reached the Sweet 16 without a senior on the roster and will come back next year more seasoned and armed with the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“We’ll be better, I can guarantee you that,” Roberts said.

But it will take a while before hope for the future soothes the pain Roberts and the Utes felt Friday, as their dream season came to an agonizing end in Greenville, S.C.

Behind 24 points from LaDazhia Williams — and four late free throws from guard Alexis Morris — Louisiana State handed the Utes a 66-63 defeat.

Sophomore guard Gianna Kneepkens had 20 points and eight rebounds and Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili had 14 points in the loss.

Kneepkens scored 10 of those points in the fourth quarter, helping the Utes take a 63-62 lead into the game’s final seconds. From there, though, Utah fumbled away their shot at the Elite Eight.

With 13 seconds to play, the Utes kept LSU star Angel Reese (17 points, 12 rebounds) from scoring a go-ahead bucket but couldn’t corral the rebound. Morris scooped up the ball, drove to the basket and forced Pili into her fifth foul of the contest. Morris made both free throws to give the Tigers a one-point lead with 10 seconds to play.

“I thought both teams left it all out there on the floor. That’s why it stings so bad,” Roberts said. “… They made the last play. We had a defensive stop and just didn’t secure the board. We were playing catchup from there.”

The Utes had their chances.

On the ensuing possession, LSU blocked Kneepkens on a drive to the basket but the ball found its way into the hands of Jenna Johnson, who was fouled. Down one with four seconds on the clock, Johnson missed both free throws.

Morris then converted two more clutch free throws on the other end to put the Tigers up by three with 2 seconds to play.

Utah’s Dasia Young had a shot to tie the game with a corner-3 at the buzzer, but saw her effort hit the top of the backboard.

“I love that kid. She’s a fighter,” Roberts said of Johnson, who played a team-high 37 minutes. “It’s hard; those are pressure moments. It’s a growing experience for her. I don’t think that will happen again if she gets the opportunity, knowing the competitor she is.

“But if you said, ‘Jenna Johnson on the line to win it, would you take it?’ Heck yeah. And I’d take it tomorrow.”

The Utes have high hopes for their tomorrows.

Utah had one of their best seasons in program history, winning 27 games, claiming a share of the Pac-12 regular season title for the first time ever and reaching as high as No. 4 in the Associated Press poll.

“I’m incredibly proud of my team, the season we had,” Roberts said. “There’s not a locker room in the world I’d rather be in — the way they compete, the way they fight but also, maybe most, the way they conduct themselves. This is just an incredible group.”

And with no seniors on the roster, the Utes have high hopes for the future.

“It’s hard to think about it right now but that is something we can look forward to [along with] being with each other through the summer and getting better,” Kneepkens said. “Right now it’s hard to think about, but it’s definitely exciting for the future.”

Added Roberts: “Time will give us some perspective. Only one team finishes in this tournament without a tearful locker room. Unfortunately, that was ours today.”