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Michelle Smith: Tournament of firsts continues for Utah women's basketball

Mar 5, 2022
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LAS VEGAS - A Tournament of firsts continues for the Utah Utes.

After reaching its first Pac-12 Tournament semifinal on Thursday night with a win over Washington State, the Utes did it one better on Friday night at Michelob ULTRA Arena with a 80-73 upset win over second-seeded Oregon.

Utah will make the program’s debut appearance in the Pac-12 championship game on Sunday against a team that would be considered at the opposite of that spectrum, the top-seeded Stanford Cardinal, which overpowered Colorado in the early semifinal to play for a conference tournament title for the 19th time and sixth in as many seasons.

“Sometimes when you want something, you don’t get it right when you want it,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts, who came to the press conference with wet hair and a borrowed blazer after getting doused in the postgame celebration. “You think, ‘How many times are we going to keep pounding on the door and when are we going to kick it down.’ We’re not done.

“But this is kind of a monumental moment of getting to a championship game, beating Oregon for the first time…it’s all that stuff. You work so hard. You want that moment that pushes you through. I’m so happy for our players that they get to experience this.”

Utah (20-10) pulled out a gutty win, falling behind by 11 points early before assuming the lead in the third quarter and then holding on for dear life against the Ducks.

A starting lineup with four underclassmen — including Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson — has been leading the way all season and now deep into the postseason, blazing a path to the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011.

Kneepkens, playing on her 19th birthday, finished the game with 24 points, 17 of those in the second half, to go with seven rebounds and five assists. Sophomore Kennady McQueen turned out a key performance inside with 13 points and 11 rebounds to blunt the impact of Oregon’s twin towers Nyara Sabally and Sedona Prince.

Kneepkens, who said this win was the best birthday present of her life, talked about how this team has managed to play so fearlessly.

“I would say it's kind of a combination of everything, just having it within yourself but also having coaches and our teammates have confidence,” Kneepkens said. “If we missed the first one, the next one is going in. Shoot it no matter what. And us playing well together and believing in each other really helps a lot.”

Oregon (20-11) went up 11 points by the end of the first quarter and then got outscored 66-48 to the end of the game, including 23-8 in the pivotal third quarter.

Guards Te-Hina Paopao and Endyia Rogers led the Ducks with 17 and 15 points, respectively.

Sabally, playing in her final conference game (as she plans to go pro after this season), had 12 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out with 3:32 to go. The Ducks were up 66-65 when she left the game. Utah outscored them 14-5 the rest of the way.

“We got off to a great start and we let up,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “We have to figure this thing out or the NCAA Tournament is going to be short.”

Oregon has talked about a rollercoaster season and this game was another example after a three-point win over UCLA on Thursday in the quarterfinals. The Ducks’ hopes for a host seed was likely damaged by this loss. Graves thought his team might need to get to the title game to earn a top-16 seed.

“Disappointed. This is our season in a nutshell,” Kelly Graves said. “It’s been a roller coaster all season and we are never sure what we are going to get.”

Asked whether he thought they would get that seed, Graves said, “No. We had a chance to earn it and we didn’t.”

Utah was a team that went 5-16 a year ago and left this tournament in the first round. This is much better than that. Now the Utes are looking at a significantly improved seed heading into the NCAA brackets.

“We've been on them about how to win in March and just kind of we picked two things about what it takes to win in March,” Roberts said. “We talked about being 30 percent tougher, just every possession, every person. You don't have to be perfect. But you need to be as tough as you can and play as hard as you possibly can. And tonight I think you get rewarded. That was an example of us just playing so tough and so hard and effort. I couldn't be more proud of them.”