Alissa Pili sparks big second half as No. 5 seed Utah tops 12th-seeded South Dakota State 68-54

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — With nearly all of a 20-point lead having evaporated, Utah turned yet again to Alissa Pili to spark a big second half.

Pili scored 16 of her 26 points in the second half, Kennady McQueen added 17 points and No. 5 seed Utah pulled away in the second half for a 68-54 win over No. 12 seed South Dakota State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.

Pili, a third-team AP All-America selection, was terrific again, hitting 11 of 20 shots and grabbing seven rebounds. She banked a 3-pointer with 2:49 left as the shot clock expired that finally put away the Jackrabbits.

“Throughout the season, a lot of teams have guarded me in different ways and I think the main thing for me is just to stay poised and try to just take what the defense gives me. I've just gotten better at that over time," Pili said.

While Pili and the Utes had a strong second half, it was Utah's start that set the tone. The Utes outscored South Dakota State 20-3 in the first quarter and led 27-7 early in the second quarter. Utah gave away most of the lead and led just 27-24 at the half, but outscored South Dakota State 26-17 in the third quarter to regain control.

Utah (23-10) will face No. 4 seed Gonzaga on Monday night in the second round of the Portland 4 Regional.

“That second quarter, I think we got away from what we're good at, so it was just getting that back on track and then that makes things easy for us on offense,” McQueen said.

Tori Nelson led South Dakota State (27-6) with 14 points, but the Jackrabbits picked the worst time to have their lowest scoring quarter of the season. South Dakota State was 1-for-12 shooting with seven turnovers in the first quarter and saw leading scorer Brooklyn Meyer pick up two fouls less than three minutes in.

South Dakota State’s previous low for points in a quarter was four and it happened twice this season. The building could have been part of the problem, too. The Jackrabbits started slow and had just eight points in the first quarter of an 83-58 loss at Gonzaga in December.

“Brooklyn’s two fouls didn’t help. To me that was a big part of it. We just run so much through her," South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston said.

Meyer finished with 13 points and Paige Meyer added 12. But the Jackrabbits were just 3 of 12 on 3-pointers after ranking fifth in the country while hitting 38% of their 3s coming into the NCAAs.

South Dakota State made one surge, holding Utah scoreless over the final 7:18 of the first half and pulled within 27-24 at halftime, scoring the final 17 points of the quarter.

That included a series of free throws in the final 30 seconds after a disputed call led to a technical foul on Utah's bench for expressing displeasure with a foul against the Utes.

Pili scored five of the first seven points of the second half for Utah and the Utes never led by less than eight over the final 12 minutes.

“At halftime, it wasn't like we were screaming or yelling or anything," Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. "It was just like, ‘Guys, we have to move the ball.’ Our offense is predicated on pace and space and tempo and we just kind of got away from that.”

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Utah will face the Zags on their home floor Monday night. The teams last played in 2022 on a neutral court in Hawaii. Gonzaga won 89-71.

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