By this time, Utah Utes women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts knew she had an NCAA tournament team

A few weeks ago, Lynne Roberts was asked to name a game, or at least a moment this season, that made the head coach think her University of Utah women’s basketball team could do something meaningful this winter.

Roberts didn’t have a good answer to that question at the time. The seventh Utes have since advanced to the program’s first NCAA tournament since 2011, with a first-round game against the 10th-seeded University of Arkansas for Friday afternoon. Roberts, who is now in her seventh season at Salt Lake City, has been pondering the question ever since and now has a very good answer.

By the end of January, Utah had begun to put together a serious resume, but there wasn’t much room for error. The Utes had beaten teams that were expected to beat them but started a tough early Pac-12 schedule going 1-3 with losses to conference powerhouses Stanford, Arizona and Oregon. On January 28, they dropped a 68-62 overtime decision at home to Colorado to drop to 10-7 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-12. A planning error sent both teams to Boulder for the second leg two days later.

This January 30th matinee at the CU Events Center marked a crossroads for these Utes on an afternoon when 100+ year game veteran Dru Gylten was unavailable through injury. As Roberts says, this day was a must to keep Utah’s hopes of being at large alive.

“We played well without Dru and I mean, we won this game from top to bottom,” Roberts said earlier this week, describing the 78-67 win. “We were 19 years old once, and just her mentality, her fearlessness. There was no nervousness, no feeling of pressure. We just went out and competed.

“You look back on it, I think that was a big moment for the season.”

Beginning with the win in Colorado, Utah ripped off seven wins in 10 games to wrap up the regular season. When the scene shifted to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament earlier this month, the general resume was Stein, a bid for the NCAA tournament a fatal ban. Just to be safe, Roberts coached her team to the first championship game of the program’s Pac-12 tournament, including wins over tournament-bound teams Washington State and Oregon, before staying with defending champion Cardinal for three quarters of the title game.

Friday’s first-round matchup against the Razorbacks, which will be played at the University of Texas’ Erwin Center, is not the culmination of Roberts’ seven years in Utah, but is currently the clear high-water mark of her tenure.

The fact that Utah took so long to get here and the path Roberts and her program have taken in that time only made this run all the more fulfilling.

Utah went to the WNIT in each of Roberts’ first three seasons. The 2018-19 team opened 18-1, complete with a win over No. 6 Stanford, rose to No. 14 on the AP Top 25, then fell apart. A string of injuries eventually left the Utes with seven healthy players. They lost nine of 11 games to end the season, and Roberts eventually turned down a WNIT offer.

A 14-17 mark next season, last season’s COVID-hit campaign ended 5-16 while dealing with players choosing NCAA transfer portal.

Now Utes guard Gianna Kneepkins is the best freshman in the Pac-12. Jenna Johnson is another top notch Pac-12 newcomer. Gylten and Brynna Maxwell provide a steady veteran presence. Former North Summit star Kennady McQueen played a ton in their first two seasons, as did Peyton McFarland.

Recruitment helped, but so did staying the course after the bumps. Nothing rash, nothing out of the ordinary to try to get things going again. Roberts took Division II Chico State to four NCAA tournaments, including the 2006 Final Four, by stabilizing things. Pacific, an afterthought on the West Coast, went to four WNITs under Roberts, and now Utah is back in the NCAA tournament with the legitimate possibility of more to come given recent recruiting success.

“I think it’s satisfying in that regard just because of the amount of work that we put in and the fact that we just put our heads down and kept chopping wood,” Roberts said. “This is certainly validation on some level because you know your efforts and process are working. I believe things should be done the way we want to do them. Those things are validated in recruitment and all those things, but for me personally, yeah, that’s satisfying. I think that’s a validation of our program.

“I’m just grateful this is my third job as a head coach because that’s not a level where I want to cut my teeth and be my first job, I can tell you that. I have been blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to learn, grow and develop and learn by doing some things wrong and some things right.”

There’s a lot more right than wrong happening for Roberts and her program right now, and this weekend in Austin is a new, nationally visible opportunity to show the kind of progress that has been made.

A win over Arkansas on Friday will likely give Utah a shot at Texas, winners of 11 straight games, winners of the Big 12 tournament.

“It just takes longer than you want,” Roberts said. “I think in athletics, coaches are the worst at not being the most patient. Staying the course and just trying to do things the way I know they should come first in terms of integrity and people, those things are important. It feels good to finally be turning the corner on that and entering the national conversation.”

Publisher’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. By this time, Utah Utes women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts knew she had an NCAA tournament team

Jessica MacLeish

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