Anchorage’s Alissa Pili drives in for a layup during practice at the Alaska Airlines Center in advance of the Shootout. Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

Ever since there’s been a Great Alaska Shootout, the Seawolves have been the crowd favorites.

Even when facing some of the most famous teams and players in college basketball history, UAA has been capable of stealing the show, sometimes for a 10-minute spurt in the first half, sometimes for an entire game. Nothing electrifies a crowd like the Division II underdogs keeping up with the Division I top dogs.

Yet as this year’s tournament nears, coach Ryan McCarthy of the defending champion UAA women’s team is willing to cede the spotlight.

The Seawolves will no doubt give fans reason to cheer Saturday and Sunday at the Alaska Airlines Center. But this is homecoming weekend for the star of the fourth-ranked Utah Utes, and Anchorage has never seen a homecoming queen quite like Alissa Pili.

A generational talent who is the most decorated athlete in the history of Alaska high school sports, Pili reigned last season as the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

She’s off to a brilliant start this season, averaging 22.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game, and she’s the reason to buy a ticket for Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game against the Seawolves at the Alaska Airlines Center.

And McCarthy is OK with that.

He said good fortune brought Pili and the Utes — a Sweet 16 team in last year’s NCAA Tournament — to the Shootout, which this year consists of a four-team women’s tournament. The men’s tournament was last held in 2017.

“We got lucky,” McCarthy said, “because in the Alissa Pili Sweepstakes, we had three teams who contacted us about potentially coming to the Shootout.” At the time each team was wooing Pili, and each wanted to offer Pili a senior-season trip home as part of its recruitment of the 6-foot-2 forward.

ASRC/ConocoPhillips Great Alaska Shootout
At Alaska Airlines Center

5:15pm EKU (4-0) vs UAB (2-0)
7:30pm #4 Utah (2-1) vs UAA (2-1)
5:15pm Third Place
7:30pm Championship

Not since former East High trailblazer Trajan Langdon returned to Alaska in 1998 as the star of the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils has the Shootout featured a home-grown star whose galaxy extends through all of college basketball.

Langdon and the Blue Devils drew a sellout crowd of 8,700 for that year’s championship game at Sullivan Arena, and Pili’s presence is expected to fill many of the 5,000 seats at the Alaska Airlines Center.

“She’s a recognizable name in college basketball, so I think it does a lot for basketball in the state of Alaska,” McCarthy said. “If little girls want to play and if watching Alissa Pili play interests them, that grows our program, because we want to recruit in-state.”

On the Mount Rushmore of Alaska girls basketball, Pili is right up there with Jessica Moore of Palmer (UConn), Kelsey Griffin of Eagle River (Nebraska) and Ruthy Hebard of Fairbanks (Oregon).

She was a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year for Dimond High, and the only year she didn’t win the coveted award was her freshman season, when Hebard won it as a senior for West Valley High School.

During her days at Dimond, Pili captured 13 state titles in four sports, either individually or as a member of a team. She was named the Female National Athlete of the Year by MaxPreps two years in a row.

Pili was back at Dimond on Friday afternoon for a gathering in the gymnasium that drew about 300 students. The night before, about 30 people dressed in Utah gear and waving “Pili Power” signs greeted the Utes at the airport. The moments

“Brought some emotions up,” Pili said.

Dimond alum Alissa Pili speaks to students at her former high school during Friday’s pep assembly. Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics

“It definitely hit me coming off the plane and we got a little cold breeze,” she said with a laugh. “The thing that hit me the most was seeing my whole family there. It was almost 11 o’clock at night and they’re all there to welcome us. It was pretty emotional for me.”

Pili’s power is more than just filling up a stat sheet, longtime Dimond coach Kathleen Navarre said Pili is a role model for girls all across Alaska.

“To me it’s huge,” Navarre said. “The fact Alissa has ties to Barrow, it means the younger girls from the villages to the in-town girls know that all things are possible.

“I think people realize Alissa’s a big deal, and is doing great things.”

Pili’s impact runs deep. Her mom, Heather, has Alaska Native roots in Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), and her dad, Billy, brought Samoan roots when he moved to Alaska from Hawaii. Heather and Billy have eight kids and a huge extended family. Billy expects anywhere from 60 to 100 family members to attend this weekend’s games.

And that’s why Pili wanted to play for a school willing to bring her and her teammates to Alaska for the Shootout.

“Our kids, this is their home, and they love to come home,” Billy Pili said. “She’s stoked. This is where it all started. She loves playing in front of family and friends.”

Utah coach Lynne Roberts said Pili’s love of family, love of her heritage and love of Alaska is always on display, but especially so now that she’s home.

“What’s pretty neat is the pride Alissa has in being from Alaska,” Roberts said. “She’s not shy about saying that in Salt Lake City either. So it’s really cool for me and I’m sure for her teammates to see that pride, and she wears it on her face when she’s around here, and it’s pretty special.”

Sporting shorts in winter, Alissa Pili brings to life the meaning of ‘From the Snow.’ Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

During Friday’s visit to Dimond, the Pili family presented Utah’s coaching staff with traditional atikluks, or windbreakers, made by Pili’s grandmother, Virgie Crosby, and great-aunt, Maggie Ahmaogak. “They absolutely loved them,” Heather Pili said.

Maybe as much as they love what Alissa Pili gives the Utes. Pili is a physical force who plays with finesse, someone as comfortable on the perimeter as she is in the paint. She’s shooting 82 percent from the field, including 57 percent from 3-point range.

And, said teammate Kennady McQueen, she’s someone who can rally the team in tough times.

“She brings such a great leadership mentality to our team that we really look for, especially in big moments, big games. We know we can rely on Alissa when practices get hard or when we need to refocus, she’s the one calling us together to get us refocused. So yeah, she’s a great basketball player, but an even better leader.”

All eyes will be on Pili this weekend. The last time she played at the Alaska Airlines Center, her 40 points and 13 rebounds carried Dimond past Bartlett in the state championship game and clinched a 29-win season for the Lynx. That was in March 2019.

Four years later, what’s sure to be an adoring Anchorage crowd will get to see her again. She’ll return the love by playing with pride and passion.

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