SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah will enter the Pac-12 Tournament as a champion.
Gianna Kneepkens scored a season-high 28 points to lead the No. 8 Utes to an 84-78 victory over No. 3 Stanford on Saturday. Utah earned a share of their first regular-season Pac-12 Conference title with the win.
Alissa Pili finished with 14 points and Kennedy McQueen had 10 points, five rebounds, four assists and six steals for Utah (25-3, 15-3), which shares the conference title with Stanford.
The Utes claimed a share of the Pac-12 crown only two seasons after winning just five total games.
“That’s my job and I’m stubborn,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “I wouldn’t believe that it couldn’t happen. I knew we could do it. I knew it could happen.”
Hannah Jump led Stanford (27-4, 15-3) with 24 points. Cameron Brink had 14 points, 12 rebounds and six assists for the Cardinal, while Haley Jones added nine points and eight rebounds.
Utah led the entire second half, but Stanford pulled within one at 73-72 after Brink and Jones combined to make four straight baskets. Kneepkens knocked down a 3-pointer to keep the Cardinal from erasing the deficit completely.
The Utes then forced three straight turnovers in the final minute to secure the win.
“They were more aggressive, and our turnovers were bad,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Our lack of execution (hurt us). They were the better team.”
Stanford seized a quick 9-0 lead after making four straight baskets, culminating in back-to-back jumpers from Jump. Utah used stout defense to erase the deficit, going ahead 10-9 on a pair of free throws from Kelsey Rees. The Utes held the Cardinal scoreless for five minutes and forced four turnovers in that stretch.
Utah built a seven-point lead during the second quarter behind hot shooting from Kneepkens. She scored 12 points in the quarter, culminating in a 3-pointer that put the Utes up 40-33. Kneepkens gave Utah’s offense a spark while Pili sat the final nine minutes of the first half after picking up her third foul.
She credited Roberts’ trust in her abilities for helping the Utes weather Pili’s absence.
“We don’t have to play tentative out there,” Kneepkens said. “We can just play free.”
The Utes made 5 of 7 shots to open the second half and went ahead 52-40 on back-to-back baskets from Kneepkens and Issy Palmer.
Second-chance baskets sparked a Stanford rally. The Cardinal scored 11 second-chance points in the third quarter after being held scoreless in that category during the first half. Stanford trimmed the deficit to a basket, cutting Utah’s lead to 59-57 on a layup from Jones.
The Cardinal never came close enough to go ahead of the Utes after Utah kept getting stops at critical junctures while taking care of the ball.
“We caught them off-guard a little bit with how we were defending,” Roberts said. “21 turnovers is not normal for them. Conversely, we only had 10. I think that’s where the game was won.”
McQueen keyed Utah’s relentless defense with a career-high in steals. The sophomore guard is pacing the Utes with a team-high 1.1 steals per game this season.
Roberts said McQueen has an incredibly high motor and teammates credit her with helping improve their individual games with her defensive tenacity in practices.
“She makes all of us better each day,” Kneepkins said. “Kennedy uses her athleticism super well to get boards and just scrap on defense. You can watch her and take pointers from her.”
Stanford: The Cardinal dominated on the glass, outrebounding Utah 37-23. That gave Stanford numerous critical extra possessions against a tenacious Ute defense.
Utah: The Utes were proficient in disrupting Stanford’s offense and capitalizing on turnovers. Utah scored 26 points off 21 Cardinal turnovers.
Beating a top-5 Stanford team should boost Utah back into the top 5.
Stanford and Utah will play in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. Both teams have a bye into the quarterfinal round on Thursday.
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