Transfer Alissa Pili leading way as No. 8 Utah starts 14-0

Jan 4, 2023, 11:33 PM | Updated: Jan 5, 2023, 1:34 pm
FILE - Utah forward Alissa Pili (35) celebrates a basket during an NCAA basketball game against Okl...

FILE - Utah forward Alissa Pili (35) celebrates a basket during an NCAA basketball game against Oklahoma on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Leading scorer Alissa Pili has No. 8 Utah off to a 14-0 start and the program's highest ranking in school history. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate, File)

(AP Photo/Tyler Tate, File)

Utah’s Alissa Pili may be an undersized post player at 6-foot-2. Just don’t tell her that.

The scouting report on Pili: A physical presence down low (she attributes that to being an offensive/defensive lineman in football). Difficult to box out (a quality from her wrestling days). Quick reflexes (thanks, volleyball). Talented singer, too (“If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys is her go-to jam ).

Pili is the leading scorer and rebounder for an eighth-ranked Utah team that’s not only off to a 14-0 start, but also just climbed to the highest AP ranking in program history. The versatile forward who transferred from Southern California this season has seamlessly meshed with the Utes. She was recently named to the midseason top 25 watch list for the John R. Wooden Award, which recognizes the outstanding player in college basketball.

“We just look to improve every practice and every game and I think we’re doing a good job at that,” said Pili, whose team is 3-0 in Pac-12 play heading into Friday’s game at Colorado (12-3, 2-1). “Obviously, we have really skilled players, so that helps, too.”

A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Pili is the second of nine kids. She grew up playing pretty much every sport imaginable, but football was her first love. She was on teams with her older brother, Brandon, who suited up for Southern Cal in the Cotton Bowl. Pili was in the stands with her family to watch his final game ( a 46-45 loss to Tulane ).

“You’re never bored,” Pili cracked about her family. “We support each other like crazy. My siblings and my parents were always at my games.”

There were plenty of them, too.

Her dad wanted her to be a well-rounded athlete. That’s why she participated in a little bit of everything. Years of football — on both sides of the ball — helped build strength. Years of wrestling helped with endurance and strength. Volleyball increased her reaction time. The shot put and discus amassed more strength.

It all set her up for success on the basketball court, where she became a three-time Alaska Gatorade player of the year at Dimond High School and earned the “Pride of Alaska” award from the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

Initially, Pili followed the route of her brother to Southern California, where she blossomed into the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2019-20. A hard-to-heal sprained ankle hampered her sophomore campaign, and after last season — averaging 7.8 points — she decided she needed a change of scenery.

“When I entered the transfer portal, I was really deliberate about the things I was looking for in a school,” said Pili, who has a tattoo down her right leg that’s a representation of her Polynesian culture. “Utah’s style of play — it played a big part.”

So did this: Utah coach Lynne Roberts’ familiarity with Pili’s game. When with the Trojans, Pili had a 29-point performance against the Utes on Feb. 28, 2020.

“There was a good foundation and good culture,” Pili said of her move to Utah. “It was a pretty smooth transition fitting in.”

Pili scored 27 points in her Utah debut on Nov. 7 against Idaho. She also had a streak in December where she scored 25 or more in three straight games, something a Utes player hadn’t accomplished since Kalee Whipple in 2009-10.

Currently, Pili is shooting 63.7% from the floor, including 12 of 30 from 3-point range, and averaging 19.7 points (6.1 rebounds). She has plenty of scoring help, too, with Gianna Kneepkens (14.1 points), Jenna Johnson (11.6) and Kennady McQueen (11.0).

“Everybody knows how good Gianna is, and how good Kennady is, and Jenna, in terms how they can shoot and put the ball on the floor,” Roberts said after an 85-58 win over Colorado on Dec. 14. “Everybody’s keying on them and it’s opening up the key. It’s nice to have somebody (Pili) who’s pretty automatic.”

Pili’s plan is to play one more year at Utah before hopefully embarking on a career in the WNBA.

But that’s a conversation for another time. Her focus is simply on the Utes keeping this run going. Their best start to the season was 16-0 in 1997-98 when Utah was a member of the Western Athletic Conference.

“We’re all pretty level-headed and everybody’s humble on this team,” Pili said. “I don’t think the rankings have any effect on how everybody acts or plays. It’s just motivation to stay on top.”


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Transfer Alissa Pili leading way as No. 8 Utah starts 14-0