The No. 18 Arizona Wildcats will face their last big challenge of the regular season when they play the No. 4 Utah Utes on Friday at 9 p.m. ET. A road win for Utah will keep them in contention for the Pac-12 title, while Arizona will be looking to spoil that title opportunity and get into the Top 15 with a win.
The Wildcats have been put to the test all February long and so far, they’ve passed. They’ve beaten No. 16 UCLA, Cal, and No. 25 USC. They did lose in blowout fashion to Stanford, but, then again, who hasn’t?
Now they face a Utah team that’s playing as well as anyone in the nation. To beat them, they’ll need to rely on their top-level talent. That means Cate Reese, Shaina Pellington, Jade Loville and Esmery Martinez have to have big games.
The bad news for Arizona is that it lost the last time these two teams met. The good news? The margin of defeat was just one point. It took a pair of Alissa Pili free throws to secure the win. So these teams aren’t as far apart as their records indicate. There’s a familiarity here and with home court, Arizona has an excellent chance to pull off the upset.
Utah has turned out to be one of the best teams in the country. The Utes are Top 4 in the nation, tied for first with a 12-2 record in the conference and have won seven games in a row.
The Utes are in a position to win it all this season, so it’s natural to look ahead at a showdown against Stanford on the season’s final day for, potentially, the Pac-12 title.
Doing so would be a mistake.
Arizona could easily win this game and if Utah doesn’t come out with the appropriate focus, it could be a long night in Tucson. Luckily for the Utes, they have Pili. The forward is leading the team in both points and rebounds and as long they establish her offensively early, they should play up to their capabilities.
Gianna Kneepkens is another key player for Utah. The guard has been electric, averaging 15 points a game, and is a sniper from three, shooting 43.5 percent. The one-two combo of Pili and Kneepkens is one of the reasons Utah is having a historic season. A win on Friday would put them one step closer to their ultimate goal.
No. 4 Utah Utes (22-2, 12-2 Pac-12) vs. No. 18 Arizona Wildcats (19-6, 9-5 Pac 12)
When: Friday, Feb. 17 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, AZ
How to watch: Pac-12 Network
Key to the matchup: Pili and Kneepkens are the ultimate one-two punch for Utah and both will need to be at the top of their game to pull off the tough road win. For Arizona, it’s all hands on deck as it’ll need its starting lineup to be its best if it wants to ruin Utah’s Pac-12 title dreams. This is the marquee matchup of the weekend in the Pac-12 and I expect it to be close in the fourth quarter, coming down to which star players shine during crunch time.