The Utah women’s basketball team went 11-0 in the nonconference portion of the season, but the Utes didn’t receive much national attention.
Despite the perfect start, the Utes’ RPI and caliber of schedule probably had a lot to do with being passed over at that time.
A 5-1 start to the Pac-12 schedule, with the lone loss coming on a buzzer-beater to a ranked Arizona State team, was enough to get the Utes into The Associated Press top 25 poll for the first time in a decade. Utah entered last week at No. 21.
A brutal four-game stretch was about to begin as the Utes hosted California and Stanford this past weekend.
Utah started off well with a solid 87-74 victory over the Golden Bears.
But the Utes turned plenty of heads on Sunday when they went toe-to-toe with then-No. 6 Stanford — and made the plays down the stretch for a 75-68 victory, the first in program history over the Cardinal.
"I am so proud of our team because we just continue to chip away," fourth-year coach Lynne Roberts said. "I think this win is so big because of who Stanford is and what they've done. I think that (Stanford coach) Tara VanDerveer is the greatest of all time and I have so much respect for her, her staff and their program. So, that is what makes this win so big, because you are beating the greatest. It is humbling and exciting."
That victory, the first top-15 win for the program since 2006, vaulted the Utes up to No. 14 on Monday.
Now comes an even more difficult task — Utah heads to the Willamette Valley to take on top-10 programs back to back on the road.
The Utes (18-1, 7-1) will first square off with No. 4 Oregon on Friday and close the weekend on Super Bowl Sunday with a battle against No. 9 Oregon State.
“Utah has probably been the surprise of the year and I don’t know if anybody is really surprised, Lynne does a great job there,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said in his postgame radio interview Sunday after the Beavers picked up a road sweep of the Washington schools with a 52-35 win at Washington State.
“But obviously beating Stanford is just a big, big deal for any program. That’s a big win so they’ll come in with a ton of confidence to our two games next weekend.”
Utah’s rise shows how strong the Pac-12 has become. Through Sunday’s results, eight Pac-12 teams had an RPI of 49 or better.
While the grind of the conference can be difficult to navigate unscathed, it will certainly prepare teams for what they will see come the postseason.
“Our last nine games are against top 50 teams,” Rueck said last week. “I mean that’s what this conference is. So it is the best conference in our sport, top to bottom, we can say that now. The bottom has risen and so everybody is in the top 100. So it prepares everyone.”
A little separation
Four full weeks into the conference season and four teams have begun to separate themselves from the pack. Oregon is 8-0 for the first time in school history and leads Stanford, Utah and Oregon State — all 7-1 — by a game.
Arizona State, which has road wins over Utah and Oregon State, is in fifth at 5-4 after splitting with the Los Angeles schools this past weekend.
UCLA and California are a half game back at 4-4 while Arizona is 4-5 after dropping a 98-93, triple-overtime decision at home to UCLA on Sunday.
The bottom four consists of Washington State at 2-7, USC at 1-7, Washington at 1-8 and Colorado at 0-8.
With No. 1 Notre Dame falling on Sunday to North Carolina, Oregon moved up a spot to No. 4 this week in The Associated Press poll, receiving two points more than the Fighting Irish.
Stanford dropped from No. 6 to No. 8 after losing to Utah while Oregon State remained at No. 9 after a road sweep in Washington.
Utah jumped sevens spots to No. 14 while Arizona State tumbled five spots to No. 21. Cal received two votes.
Players of the week
Utah’s Megan Huff was named the conference’s player of the week after helping lead the Utes to the sweep of the Bay Area schools. A senior, Huff averaged 20.5 points and 11 rebounds a game to earn her second career honor.
Arizona’s Cate Reese was named the freshman of the week for the second straight week and third time this season. Reese averaged 15.5 points and eight rebounds in a split with the Los Angeles schools.