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No. 12 Utes take down BYU with help from their point guard’s newfound confidence

Utah is 7-1, but what do we know about the No. 12 Utes before a key stretch?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Ines Vieira (2) pushes her way down the court as Utah hosts BYU in NCAA basketball at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

The No. 12 Utes have only been tested once this season — an 84-77 loss to Baylor on the road in mid-November.

Since then, the Utah women have cruised to lopsided wins in five outings, three of which saw them hit the century mark. Saturday was more of the same, as the Utes blew out BYU 87-68 and held onto a 20-point advantage for most of the fourth quarter.

Bigger tests await next, as Utah visits St. Joseph’s next Thursday before taking on No. 1 South Carolina after that.

The Utes have a massive question: How severe is the injury star guard Gianna Kneepkens suffered late in Saturday’s win?

But beyond that, there are still key developments from this 7-1 start that might be indicators of how Lynne Roberts’ group will fare as tougher games near.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Lynne Roberts yells out as the Utah hosts BYU in NCAA basketball at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Inês Vieira changes how this offense operates

Saturday night’s win over BYU might be the perfect time to dive into Inês Vieira’s jump this season. She played 35 minutes, had 12 assists and was quietly one of Utah’s most efficient players even though she scored only five points.

Remember, a year ago, Roberts had to pull Vieira from the starting lineup because she was the least efficient offensive player on the team. Utah then went into the transfer portal this offseason to get more offensive help in the backcourt, recruiting Wisconsin guard Maty Wilke.

Utah was guarding against a situation where if starting point guard Issy Palmer went out, the offensive operation would slow down.

But Palmer is hurt and it is Vieira keeping this offense — now the No. 1 scoring offense in the country — humming.

Vieira’s leap this season has completely changed the way Utah can operate on the offensive side of the ball.

Vieira was always an all-conference caliber defender, but she just wasn’t a true threat to score. She seemed to settle for low-percentage runners and low-percentage threes. It led to her shooting just 30% from the field and 23% from deep. Utah’s offense couldn’t function at its highest level because of it. Teams could cheat off her and start to help on Alissa Pili inside and others.

“She wasn’t playing with much confidence,” Roberts said. “She had our lowest efficiency field goal percentage on the team. I wanted to take some pressure off of her [by playing her off the bench].”

This year, though, Vieira looks different. She is more under control and is shooting mostly kick-out threes and high-percentage finishes. Those are her best shots. She is also shooting it more, taking open looks and forcing teams to guard her.

As a result, Vieira is shooting 57.9% from three and taking 2.7 per game. That is up from 1.4 threes last year. She’s also 55.6% from two, up from 40% a year ago.

“Not taking crazy runners. Not out of control. Keeping her dribble and playing off of two feet more,” Roberts said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Ines Vieira (2) drives on the basket as Utah hosts BYU in NCAA basketball at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

And it isn’t just the scoring. Truthfully, Utah doesn’t need Vieira to score 20 points a night (although it will take it in a game like Eastern Kentucky on the road). But it is more about what the threat of Vieira scoring does for the offense.

The respect teams have to give her is opening up passing lanes. One of Vieira’s best offensive attributes is her ability to see the floor, and now she has more room to operate in.

Utah’s entire offense benefits from that: The Utes are getting easy looks, and Vieira is now up to seven assists per game.

Saturday’s game against BYU was the perfect example of that. Vieira only scored five points, but BYU had to respect her. It led to 12 assists. And when Vieira was on the floor, Utah scored at least one point on 54% of its possessions. That was the second-highest on the team only after Pili.

So in one season, Vieira has gone from Utah’s least efficient player to one that Roberts can barely take off the floor. She played a team-high in minutes on Saturday. She might have a big role even after Palmer gets back.

She knows who she is. And she is doing it better than maybe anyone else right now.

Finding depth behind Pili

Roberts has been toying with her rotation for the first month. Against Baylor, Roberts played 10 players (although part of that was due to Pili picking up two quick fouls in the first half).

Depending on Kneepkens’ status, we might be starting to see what a true rotation will look like in competitive games. Roberts essentially went with eight players against BYU, with only two players off the bench playing over 10 minutes.

It is clear by now that Roberts probably trusts freshman Reese Ross, senior Dasia Young and Wilke to give her minutes off the bench right now. She has looked for players like Sam Crispe in spots, but Crispe didn’t play against BYU.

Roberts said it was a bad matchup for her given BYU was playing four guards and had one of the nation’s top rebounders Lauren Gustin inside.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Reese Ross (20) stretches out for a shot as Utah hosts BYU in NCAA basketball at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Still, Crispe might be the biggest wildcard in this rotation moving forward. Utah still needs depth, particularly offensive depth, behind Pili. Crispe, along with Ross, can give Roberts that.

Against Baylor, it was evident that Utah needed something more behind Pili. She went out with two quick fouls and Utah didn’t have enough inside to keep Baylor honest.

It allowed Baylor to run out on every three and Utah shot a season-low 25% from three. Utah needs more to make sure that won’t happen.

Ross has proven she can come in and give Utah five or six rebounds a night. That is likely why Roberts trusts her more right now. But eventually, Crispe has to come along too. Roberts thinks it is a confidence issue right now.

“She is 100% physically capable,” Robert said. “But you go against Alissa Pili every day and you start thinking like, ‘I’m no dang good.’ And that is not the case. She has got to be the best Sam. Her [thing] is mentality [right now].”