Alaska loves Alissa Pili.
The largest crowd to watch a women’s basketball game at the Alaska Airlines Center showed up Saturday night to catch a glimpse of the NCAA All-American from Anchorage.
They saw a lot of Pili and a lot of points scored by nationally ranked Utah.
The No. 4 Utes outmuscled and outhustled the NCAA Division II Seawolves en route to posting a commanding 101-57 victory in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout.
The game drew a crowd of 3,711, the third largest in the arena’s 10-year history, while a record 943 viewers watched online.
Call it the Pili effect.
The hometown hero didn’t disappoint as she scored 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in 24 minutes to lead Utah into the Shootout title game Sunday night against Eastern Kentucky.
ASRC/ConocoPhillips Great Alaska Shootout
At Alaska Airlines Center
Eastern Kentucky 68, Alabama Birmingham 64
#4 Utah 101, UAA 57
5:15pm Third Place
UAB (2-1) vs. UAA (2-2)
EKU (5-0) vs. #4 Utah (3-1)
With close to 100 family members and hundreds more friends in the stands, Pili had plenty of reason to celebrate her first game in Rage City since her high school senior season in 2019, when she led the Dimond Lynx to a second straight Class 4A state championship.
Returning four years later as a college player brought home the full circle moment.
“Playing in front of my hometown and front of my family and all my friends, it’s a great feeling,” Pili said. “It’s a good welcome home.”
After the game, Pili was swarmed by fans. She posed for photos, signed autographs and even kissed a baby.
A hero’s reception she received, and for good reason. The 6-foot-2 power forward is currently the most popular athlete from Alaska besides NHL goaltender Jeremy Swayman of the Boston Bruins. She’s even bigger than her brother Brandon, who is a rookie in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins.
Pili’s power is real. And her prowess on the court is undeniable; a nearly unstoppable post-to-perimeter playmaker who brings a unique skill set of power, quickness and finesse to the court.
— Utah Women’s Basketball (@UTAHWBB) November 19, 2023
She’s the leader of the pack on an elite Utes team that is loaded.
Returning All-Pac-12 forward Gianna Kneepkens bagged game highs in points (22) and steals (6). Point guard Inês Vieira posted a double-double with 10 points and 14 assists. And Reese Ross came off the bench to snag a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Utah shot 61% from the field and had 35 assists on 38 baskets.
“We have a bunch of weapons on our team,” Pili said. “If one person isn’t getting theirs one night everybody else will step up. That’s a good thing to have and a dangerous thing for other teams to defend. I got shooters all around me and people who can score.”
Opponents usually focus on stopping Pili from scoring. The Seawolves did about as well as anybody has at slowing her down this year; in fact, you could argue better because she came into the game shooting 83% and they held her to 67%.
Pili’s first points Saturday came in the paint as Utah opened on a 9-2 run. Later she knocked down 3-of-4 free throws give her five points in the first quarter.
Her only 3-pointer of the night came in the second quarter from her favorite spot atop the key as Utah’s lead swelled to 39-18.
Her fingerprints were all over a 10-0 run to start the third quarter as she turned into ‘Point Pili’ with three assists on four possessions, with the other score coming on her layup.
Her coach, Lynne Roberts, let Pili stay on the court in the fourth quarter no doubt because that’s who Alaskans came to see.
They witnessed history in the making as two late layups pushed Pili’s career point total to 1,522 as she moved past former Kansas State standout Brit Jacobson (1,519) of Chugiak for eighth on Alaska’s all-time college scoring list.
No doubt it was a tough night for the undersized, underdog Seawolves.
Utah won the battle of the boards 46-22 and held a 26-10 advantage in points off turnovers.
Still, UAA stood tall against long odds.
Senior guard Jazzpher Evans led the team in scoring with 14 points while Kya Pearson netted nine points on three 3s.
Senya Rabouin added seven points and drained an NBA-range 3 to pull UAA within 24-17 late in the first quarter. In the second quarter she converted a tough layup high off glass.
The Seawolves grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and limited the run-and-fun Utes to seven fastbreak points although they still reached the century mark, and the Shootout title game.
Expect another big crowd Sunday night when Utah faces EKU for the championship.
Just don’t ask Pili for a ticket. She’s already burned through the 40 tickets she was given.
“That’s all they gave me,” she said with a smile. “If I had more, I would use more.”
EKU 68, UAB 64
Alice Recanati was money running the point for Eastern Kentucky as the senior guard dropped enough dimes to make a dollar Saturday in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout.
The best of her 10 assists came on nifty no-look pass to Sierra McCullough late in the fourth quarter that produced a bucket and propelled the Colonels to a 68-64 victory over Alabama Birmingham.
With the game tied 55-55, Recanati rifled a pass to the 6-foot-2 McCullough for a good look that led to the go-ahead basket as EKU improved to 5-0, the team’s best start since 1994.
Leading scorer Antwainette Walker overcame a slow start to finish with 20 points while McCullough delivered a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds.
Other double-figure scorers for EKU included Ivy Turner (14) and Brie Crittendon (10) as the team out of Richmond, Ky., advanced to the Shootout title game Sunday night.
UAB’s Mia Moore was marvelous as the 5-foot-6 sophomore guard stuffed the stat sheet with 21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Moore hit a pair of free throws to pull the Blazers as close as 60-57 with 1:29. However, EKU iced the game with 8-of-10 foul shooting in the final minute.