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Utah knows it'll need another big March Madness game from Alissa Pili to take down Gonzaga

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — For all that she’s done over the past two seasons in helping Utah grow into a powerhouse program, perhaps the biggest contribution Alissa Pili has provided to her team is confidence.

“For me and I know for others it just kind of brings us some confidence knowing that we have one of the best players in the country on my team and I bring that confidence with me on both ends of the court,” Utah’s Matyson Wilke said.

Utah (23-10) will need that confidence on Monday night when the fifth-seeded Utes face No. 4 seed Gonzaga (31-3) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a date in the Sweet 16 next weekend in Portland, Oregon at stake.

Pili’s enjoyed a decorated college career that started at USC when she was the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2019-20 before transferring to Utah and two seasons where she’s been the best player on one of the better teams in the country.

But if Pili’s college career and Utah’s season is to continue, it’ll have to figure out a way to end Gonzaga’s 35-game home court win streak in front of the “Kennel Club,” and about 6,000 Bulldogs fans. The Zags haven’t lost at the McCarthey Athletic Center since late in the 2021-22 season.

“If people didn’t know what a home advantage meant, they know now because that was insane," Gonzaga's Maud Huijbens said of the first-round win over UC Irvine. "It was just out of this world, never experienced anything like it. I think it definitely helps. It shows that people want to watch women’s sports and that is just amazing to be a part of. I hope for the same atmosphere on Monday.”

Whether her career ends on Monday or continues to the Sweet 16 and possibly beyond, Pili’s time at Utah will be remembered for helping elevate the Utes. She will forever be the only Utah player to win Pac-12 player of the year. She was a second-team AP All-American last year and a third-team selection this year.

Pili enters Monday’s matchup averaging 21 points and had 26 points in the opening round win over South Dakota State.

“She’s the leader on the court and we follow her, and she gives us a lot of confidence,” guard Inês Vieira said. “She’s so fun. She catches every single ball.”

And Pili does it while being the focus of every defensive game plan, often getting swarmed anytime she catches the ball around the basket. Her ability to fight through that type of attention and still find ways to score is one of the more impressive and sometimes underrated parts of her game.

Especially considering that while she’s listed at 6-foot-2, she doesn’t measure up quite to that height.

“She’s maybe 6-foot, right?” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “But for her to get shots off in traffic, just the power that she has, but combined with the kind of grace and touch. It starts with footwork, and then it finishes with she’s got incredible hands, the best hands that I’ve coached in terms of what she can catch and how she can finish.”

Gonzaga is almost a mirror image of the Utes. Yvonne Ejim controls the interior for the Bulldogs and relies on an array of options to hit shots from the perimeter. One of those is Brynna Maxwell, who played the first three seasons of her career at Utah before spending the past two seasons at Gonzaga. Maxwell has scored in double figures in 16 straight games, including 11 points in the first-round win over UC Irvine.

“It’s been fun to see her succeed here and have fun. That’s what it’s all about. Being a college athlete, it should be fun. She wanted a bigger role, and I understood that,” Roberts said.

But Roberts added with a smile, “I don’t want her to do well (tomorrow), but I’m glad she’s had a great career.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness