2023 March Madness: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Alissa Pili #35 of the Utah Utes knocks over Alasia Smith #30 of the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs as she drives to the basket during the first half of the first round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Utah star forward Alissa Pili powered the No. 2-seeded Utes to a first-round win Friday in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, scoring a career-high 33 points with eight rebounds and eight assists (also a career high) in a dominant 103-77 victory over No. 15-seed Gardner-Webb.

“I think just posting up hard whenever I had the opportunity,” the 6-2 Pili said regarding the key to her success Friday evening at the Huntsman Center, the Utes’ home court. “It’s mostly just my teammates finding me, and like just hitting me when I’m in those one-on-one situations. Yeah, I just kind of let the game come to me and took advantage of those situations.”

Taking advantage of the opportunity has been the hallmark of a resurgent season for the 21-year Pili, who is enjoying a full-circle moment full of promise after finding herself at a crossroads in her basketball career just one year ago. Pili was a forward at Southern California at this time last year, and she’d just finished her third season with the Trojans with a career-low scoring average of 7.8 points per game. It was a far cry from the 16.3 points average she recorded her first season in 2018-19, where she earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors.

“The situations and environments I was in in the past just kind of — just made me lose love for the game, and just the joy for it of actually getting up and trying to get better and get back to my game,” Pili said in January. “I just felt like I wasn’t happy with how I was playing and just the environment I was in.”

RELATED: Updated bracket, scores and schedule for 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship

That lead Pili to do some soul searching, where she reevaluated her future desire to play in the WNBA and her current situation at USC. The program had moved on from head coach Mark Trakh after the 2020-21 season, which also marked the fourth straight season the Trojans missed out on the NCAA tournament. Trakh was replaced by Lindsay Gottlieb last season, after which Pili said she felt like the program “just wasn’t the right fit” anymore.

She entered the transfer portal in March 2022, hoping to stay in the Pac-12. Just five weeks later, the Anchorage, Alaska, native chose the Utes’ program and head coach Lynne Roberts, who had just led the Utes to their first second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2009.

Pili made her presence known at Utah immediately, scoring 27 points at home in the season opener against Idaho. She said that she “found my groove again” that night, noting she “felt like the old me.” She backed up her performance time and again this season, helping Utah to a 25-3 regular-season record that included an 84-78 win over then-No. 3 Stanford in their regular-season finale and a share of the program’s first Pac-12 season title.

“She really knows my strengths, and I think she uses me and puts me in the best position to use (my strengths),” Pili said of Roberts in December. “I think just the playing style that we have over here just goes perfectly with my game, and I’ve been able to thrive off of that.”

“I’ve been so impressed with her willingness to come in and adapt to how we do things and what we expect — and not only adapt but thrive,” said Roberts. “I think she is in an environment where she’s pushed and challenged and held to a higher standard, but also loved and encouraged and supported — not that she didn’t get that (at USC) — but I know that’s what we provide. And, I think, she’s thriving.”

The fourth-year junior was named Pac-12 Player of the Year on Feb. 28 (with Roberts earning 2023 Coach of the Year honors), marking the first time since Utah joined the league in 2011-12 that a Ute has won either award. Pili led the conference in scoring with 20.6 points per game and a league-best 59.9-percent shooting from the floor. Her 45.8-percent shooting from 3-point range ranked second in the conference, and her 16 20-point games this season was a Pac-12 high.

Earlier this week, Pili was named to the Associated Press All-American Second Team and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-American Second Team. But rising to the occasion has been Pili’s “MO” since she was a kid, when her father, Billy Pili, insisted she play football against boys – and dominate them as well.

“My dad would make me embarrass the boys every practice,” Pili shared recently. “He would line them up and we would go one-on-one, and I was (expected) to win those battles. Yeah, it was fun. Football was my first love, I think.”

She played football from third grade through eighth, switching between the offensive and defensive lines. Pili said that experience helped her develop the toughness and competitiveness that she now displays on the basketball court.

“I was surrounded by football my whole life,” said Pili, who is the second oldest of eight siblings and whose oldest brother, Brandon, just finished his final season as a defensive lineman at USC. “My brother played, my cousins played, so I just told my dad I wanted to play, too. I was the only girl at the time, and it was a blast.”

Growing up, the Pilis lived in Alaska’s northernmost town of Barrow, which is where Pili first remembers playing basketball. She started playing organized basketball when she was 8, shortly after the family moved to Anchorage, and her high school exploits are the stuff of legend.

Pili played at Anchorage’s Dimond High, where she was a three-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year and a two-time National Female Athlete of the Year by MaxPreps, joining U.S. swimming great Missy Franklin as the only two-time recipients of the award. Her aggregate 2,614 points are a state basketball record, yet that wasn’t Pili’s only notable high-school athletic achievement: She also played volleyball and competed in wrestling and track, finishing with 13 state titles to her name across all sports.

But Pili had to find her way back to that star version of herself after three years at USC, and Roberts noted that motivation was evident immediately upon Pili’s arrival at Utah.

“She came here because she felt like she wasn’t reaching her potential in a sense, and she put responsibility on herself for that,” Roberts explained Friday. “…When she got here, we had very candid conversations about, ‘Here’s what you need to do and you need to adjust and adapt to us, we’re not going to adapt to you. You need to get in the best shape of your life.’ And as I’ve said many times it’s easy to say, ‘Yep, I will.’ It’s really, really hard to do.

“And the discipline that she’s had, when no one is watching, when no one is looking, when everyone else is asleep, all her teammates are asleep, to get up and get herself in the shape she’s in. And then the buy-in that we’ve had from her has been really fun. You can hear how her teammates talk about her. There’s no ego with Alissa, which allows everybody to support her and promote her.”

“She’s a phenomenal player,” added sophomore forward Jenna Johnson, who had 20 points with four rebounds and five assists against Gardner-Webb. “She makes all of our lives a lot easier. She gets banged up in the post, takes a little bit of that for me, so that’s nice. … She’s so unselfish, so you just like to play with people like that. She’s an incredible teammate, so I’m really thankful to have her.”

If Pili continues at her current scoring pace, she could become just the second player in NCAA women’s basketball since 1999-2000 to average more than 20 points, make at least 20 three-pointers and shoot better than 60-percent from the field. Pili has scored 20 or more points in 17 games to date.

At 26-4 overall, the Utes are two wins shy of tying the program’s single-season record, set in during the 2000-01 team, which went 28-4 and advanced to the Sweet 16. Matching the record seems possible under Roberts, now in her eighth season at Utah and recently named one of 10 finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award.

As for just how satisfying the year has been to date, Pili says “very.” “I think just seeing that the hard work has been rewarded with just everything that’s come with this season, it’s just been great to be a part of,” she said.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, and like this was just meant to be my home. So I’m just glad I made the move, and yeah, I’m just happy to be at Utah.”

The Utes advanced to play the North Carolina State-Princeton winner in the Greenville 2 Region.

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2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

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2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

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