SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah is hungry to take a historic season one step further. The No. 2 seed Utes have a powerful enough offense to make big things happen in March.
Utah boasts the nation’s fourth best scoring team, averaging 83.5 points on 48.5% shooting per game, and ranks in the top 10 nationally in five major statistical categories. That efficient and potent attack helped the Utes clinch a share of their first Pac-12 title with a victory over Stanford in their regular season finale.
“It was just a moment where we proved to ourselves that we could really just do what we put our mind to, because that was one of our biggest goals starting the season out, and we accomplished that,” junior forward Alissa Pili said.
Utah (25-4) will put its offense to the test in the first round against No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb (29-4) on Friday. Seventh-seeded North Carolina State (20-11) faces No. 10 seed Princeton (23-5) in the other first-round game in Salt Lake City.
Pili helped spearhead Utah’s evolution into Pac-12 co-champion with her dominance around the basket. The USC transfer led the league in scoring (20.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (58.5%). Pili’s unique blend of athleticism has made guarding her a nightmare for opposing defenses.
“She would have made a heck of a football player,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “She’s powerful like that but she’s incredibly graceful and explosive. So it’s just a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.”
The Utes suffered an unexpected loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals while playing without injured point guard Issy Palmer. A two-week layoff has given Palmer time to rehabilitate, and she will likely play on Friday.
“The rest time has been critical to get her back,” Roberts said. “We’ll see how the next 24 hours go, but we anticipate her (being) back.”
North Carolina State will be without leading scorer Diamond Johnson on Friday. Johnson missed the ACC Tournament with a lingering ankle injury and still isn’t close to full strength. She said on Instagram that she won’t be playing this weekend.
“To my family, friends and fans i appreciate all the ongoing support that you’ve had for myself and my teammates on the court through this season. I will not be playing in the ncaa tournament this weekend and wanted to let everyone know,” she wrote. “i have been rehabbing my injury and taking it week by week, although it hasn’t been easy my support system has helped me get to this point both mentally and physically. We aren’t done yet. I will be on the sidelines supporting my team and coaches as always! Thank you all for your forever support!”
Johnson missed seven games during the regular season while dealing with her ankle and hasn’t played for the Wolfpack since mid-February. The sophomore guard has appeared in 22 games this season and is averaging 12.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game.
Without Johnson, North Carolina State will need to find other avenues for generating offense. The shorthanded Wolfpack still feel confident in their ability to bounce back from an early exit in the ACC Tournament.
“We learned a lot about ourselves and the team, even from the coaches,” center Camille Hobby said. “So we just kind of go forward from how we feel as players and just keep going. It’s the only option we have at this point.”
For the second straight season, Princeton enters the NCAA Tournament with a double-digit win streak. The Tigers rattled off 15 straight victories to bounce back from 0-2 start in Ivy League play to claim the league’s autobid and earn a 10 seed.
Last season, Princeton knocked out six-seeded Kentucky in the first round as an 11-seed. The Tigers could be equally dangerous this time around behind a stingy defense. Princeton ranked as the Ivy League’s top scoring defense while limiting opponents to 52.5 points and 37.1% shooting during the regular season.
Ellie Mitchell powers the defense with 11.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per contest.
BULLDOGS HAVE BITE
Gardner-Webb enters Friday’s contest against Utah with a 21-game winning streak. The Bulldogs posted an 18-0 record against Big South Conference opponents this season.
Much like the Utes, Gardner-Webb boasts a potent offense. Four players average double figures – led by Jhessyka Williams with 19.0 points per game – and the Bulldogs tallied 76.7 points per contest during the regular season.
Written by: John Coon
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