By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
HAWK HILL — The St. Joe’s women’s basketball team had an opportunity to make a statement Thursday night when No. 11-ranked Utah came to Hagan Arena.
Instead, they received a reality check.
The Utes, a preseason Top 5 team, gave a previously undefeated Hawks team a test they hadn’t faced before and weren’t yet prepared for. The result was a 74-48 loss.
“This group has not experienced that, and today was really good for us because as much as you can say about Top 25 or Top 15 team, until they experience it, until they sense it, taste it feel it, compete against it, they won’t know,” St. Joe’s coach Cindy Griffin said. “This is really good for us because we need to experience this if we want to be there in March.”
St. Joe's guard Chloe Welch scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds in Thursday's loss to No. 11 Utah. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
Utah (8-1) had an answer for the Hawks’ (8-1) dazzling frontcourt duo of Talya Brugler and Laura Ziegler in the form of senior 6-foot-2 forward Alissa Pili.
The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year came in averaging 22.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 74% from the field and 54% from 3-point range, and was as advertised.
Pili finished with a game-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting (3-for-4 from deep) and added seven boards, three assists, a block and a steal.
After falling behind by as many as 20 points in the first half, the Hawks pulled within six points in the third quarter. Pili’s personal 14-2 run to start the fourth quarter ended any chances of St. Joe’s upset bid.
“We had a lot of fight in us,” Griffin said. “We made some key mistakes defensively that really hurt us, and a team like that can really penalize for that and they did. And of course, Pili is just an unbelievable player. We go on a run, and all the sudden she turns it up three notches and we’re back down 15, 20 points.”
The Utes’ size and on-ball pressure visibly frustrated the Hawks early on both ends early. Junior 6-2 forward Jenna Johnson started alongside Pili in the frontcourt. Even off the bench the likes of freshman 6-1 forward Reese Ross and sophomore 6-2 forward Sam Crispe provided some difficult matchups.
The Utes jumped out to a 17-2 lead, holding the Hawks to just one make on their first 11 shots. Utah led by as many as 21 points in the second quarter before a nine-point burst by the Hawks cut the deficit to 12 and a Chloe Welch buzzer beater kept it there, 38-26, at halftime.
“They run good stuff,” Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said. “They run stuff for their personnel. They play with good tempo. They just execute well. You can tell they’re really, really well coached. They’ve got some good individual players. I thought they kind of ran out of gas little bit when maybe we had more depth, but I thought in the second quarter they hung in there.”
A Smith triple followed by a Brugler and-one cut the deficit to single digits with 4:32 left in the third. Brugler capped the 7-0 run with another bucket, cutting Utah’s lead to 44-38 with 2:53 left in the third before Utah went back up double digits entering the fourth.
Pili had 14 quick points in the fourth to pull the Utes away again, going up 65-43 with five-and-a-half minutes left in the game. The Utes’ 74 points were their fewest of the season, and the Hawks held a team averaging 14 made 3s per game to just three over the final three quarters after the hot start.
Brugler finished with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting. It was tough sledding elsewhere as the Hawks shot 32% from the floor. Mackenzie Smith finished with 10 on 4-of-15 shooting, Welch added nine points (and seven boards) on 4-of-12 shooting and Ziegler finished with eight on 3-of-13 shooting.
“Her face-up game was good,” Pili said of Brugler. “We knew that they were good in the lob game, so we tried to take that as much away as we could, but good players are going to get theirs regardless.”
The Hawks ran their win streak to nine last season before a nationally ranked Villanova team gave them their first blemish. They get the Wildcats at home Saturday, looking to bounce back from their first loss of 2023-24 and improve to 3-0 in Big 5 play (4-0 including Drexel) with La Salle the only city rival left after that.
Villanova doesn’t come in with a number next to its game like last season, but it’s another measuring stick contest.
“There’s never a good time for a punch in the mouth,” Griffin said. “I’m not gonna say that. We’re just going to try to flip a negative into a positive. We’ll learn from it. We’ll watch the film. We don’t have a lot of turnaround time before we play our next game, but sometimes that’s better. Get back on the horse and start riding.”