SALT LAKE CITY (AP)Alissa Pili joined Utah before the season looking for a fresh start. She has flourished with the Utes, turning into a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Pili tallied a career-high 33 points, eight rebounds and a career-high eight assists to power second-seeded Utah past 15th-seeded Gardner-Webb 103-77 Friday night in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
A transfer from Southern California, the junior forward led the Pac-12 in scoring and field goal percentage during the regular season and never gave the Bulldogs a chance to breathe.
“I just kind of let the game come to me and took advantage of those situations,” Pili said.
Jenna Johnson added 20 points and five assists for the Utes (26-4). Pili and Johnson combined to make 22 of 31 shots as the Bulldogs struggled to keep the duo from relentlessly attacking the basket.
The Utes advanced to play Princeton, which topped N.C. State 64-63.
“We have so many weapons offensively, so I think if the defense takes away one, we can just have another one,” Johnson said. “So we’re getting a lot of points down low early and then when they try to collapse on us, we can kick it out and hit threes.
Gardner-Webb (29-5) had a 21-game winning streak snapped and fell to 0-3 against Power 5 opponents this season. Jhessyka Williams scored 20 points for the Bulldogs.
“I think our team fought extremely hard, especially in the third quarter. We tied the third quarter,” Gardner-Webb coach Alex Simmons said. “Obviously, Utah is a team that once they get in the flow, it’s tough to stop them.”
Utah used a 14-0 run to carve out a 32-14 lead early in the second quarter. The Utes forced four turnovers over the final 3½ minutes of the first quarter to spark their game-breaking and held Gardner-Webb without a point for 4½ minutes.
The Bulldogs cut Utah’s lead to 58-50 in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Ki’ari Cain. That’s the only time the margin fell under double digits in the second half. Pili countered with a layup to spark a string of three straight baskets that pushed the Utes’ lead to 65-50.
“I thought we controlled the game the whole time, but we had some peaks and valleys of great play and kind of loose play,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said.
Gianna Kneepkens chipped in 17 points and nine rebounds for Utah. The Utes shot 59% from the floor and had 32 assists on 37 baskets.
Alaisia Smith added 14 points and eight rebounds for the Bulldogs before fouling out in the final minute of the third quarter. Cain had 14 points and six assists.
Early foul trouble curbed the Bulldogs’ ability to play aggressive defense and put them in a deep hole before the end of the first quarter. Gardner-Webb racked up eight team fouls within the first six minutes of the game.
“It’s kind of like we barely touched them and their whistles were blowing,” Williams said.
Pili had a shot at earning her first career triple-double before checking out of the game for good with 4:15 left. Roberts decided the risks to her star weren’t worth padding a few stats once the game was in hand.
“It’s tempting, but the smart thing to do is to rest and make sure there’s no injury,” Roberts said.
BIG PICTURE Gardner-Webb: Williams brought her career scoring total to 2,049 points, moving her past Dina Smith for second place in program history. She came into the NCAA Tournament averaging a team-high 19.8 points per game.
Utah: The Utes dominated around the basket from the opening tip. Utah clogged the lane on defense and attacked the paint nonstop on offense. The Utes outrebounded Gardner-Webb 44-30 and outscored the Bulldogs 60-26 in the paint. —
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