February 23, 2023 

How Alissa Pili rediscovered her love for basketball and became the Pac-12’s leading scorer in the process

'She's a unicorn, she is so unique, she's such a nightmare matchup wise like how do you guard that?' Utah coach Lynne Roberts

With the change that transfers are allowed to play right away at their new school and the addition of the transfer portal, we are seeing more players transfer than ever before. However, transfers can be a bit of a wild card, some are amazing, and some don’t meet expectations. One of the best transfers in the country this year has been Utah’s Alissa Pili. The former USC Trojan and Pac-12’s leading scorer has helped take the Utes to new heights this year.

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Pili was born in the state of Alaska, with her family moving to the largest city Anchorage when she was a child. She first started playing competitive basketball in third grade and started really feeling a passion for the sport in middle school. Growing up in Alaska gave Pili a big appreciation for the outdoors but definitely felt it was isolated from the rest of the states.

As she grew up, Pili became a star in Alaska. She was the three-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state and earned the “Pride of Alaska” award from the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. She holds the Alaska state scoring record with 2,614 career points. All this success led to Pili getting a lot of attention from colleges. When it came time to choose where to go to college, Pili decided to attend USC.

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Through her first three seasons at USC, Pili was a star. As a freshman in 2019-20, she was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year after averaging 16 points and eight rebounds. Then to start her junior year, she sprained her ankle and missed the first ten games of the season. The injury really affected Pili in more ways than just physically. She came back from it and didn’t play as well as and she wasn’t enjoying the game as much as she used to be.

“I think a lot of it had to do with when I got injured my sophomore year, and that injury had a big impact on me just because I had to sit out from basketball that long. It was tough for me because I just had to find a value for myself when I’m not playing and I’m not out there on the basketball court,” Pili told The Next. “When I came back, I just wasn’t the same anymore. I wasn’t performing the same. I think a lot of it had to do with just like how I was performing. It…got me in a bad headspace because I’ve played pretty well my whole life and that was the first time where I thought I just couldn’t do it anymore. So that had a big impact on the loss of passion for the game at the time.”

Utah Utes vs. Arizona Wildcats at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Photo Credit: Utah Athletics

After her junior season with the Trojans, Pili decided it was time for a fresh start and hit the transfer portal. Pili was looking for somewhere where she could be happy both on and off the court. She was looking for a more balanced environment and the overall feel of a place. After visiting Utah, Pili felt right at home.

“When I came to visit, I just felt it was truly a family atmosphere. A lot of schools can fool you with that. It could look good from the outside looking in, but once you get there, you know, it could be something completely different,” Pili said. “I think what was different about Utah is just the feel for it. The coaches and the players, they’re all great people and they just want to see you do well and help you do well. I think just the kind of people that I met here and just encountered when I was looking into Utah, I think just kind of made me sold on my decision.”

After arriving in Utah, Pili and Coach Lynne Roberts met and discussed what it would take for Pili to get back to the elite level she played during her freshman year at USC. The biggest thing they figured out is that Pili needed to improve her fitness to play within the Utes’ up-tempo system. Pili took this conversation to heart and has put a lot of focus into her fitness from day one.

“There was no mystery that she wasn’t in the condition she would need to be a consistent player and to play in our system; she just wasn’t in top physical shape. Just like all of us, join a gym on Jan. 1 because you’re motivated, it’s easy to say that and be like yep, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ Then it’s a whole other different thing and very, very rare for a 20-year-old, 21-year-old to wake up every morning and do it,” Utah Head Coach Lynne Roberts told The Next. “You know, meeting with our strength coach, she still does it two, three times a week gets up early, we practice in the mornings, and she gets there at 530 or six and does extra non-impact cardio. There’s that part of it, the strength and conditioning part of it and then there’s also the nutrition part of it. You know, not being on a diet but watching what you eat. How are you fueling yourself and it’s changed her physique.”

All this hard work has paid off for Pili. She is the leading scorer in the Pac-12, averaging 20.7 points per game. That is 14th best in the nation. She also leads the Pac-12 in FG% and 20-point performances with 15. She’s scored in double-figures in every game but one this season and has a streak of 10 straight games with at least 15 points, including a 30-point performance at Oregon.

Utah Utes vs. Washington Huskies at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Utah Athletics

Pili has found so much immediate success at Utah due to her vast skillset. She has been great as mobile post player who can stretch the floor and post up. She feels the coaches at Utah have done a great job of putting her in positions to succeed based on the opponent. If they are facing a bigger post, they move Pili out to the perimeter and allow her to attack off the dribble. If they are facing a smaller post, they put her down low and allow her to go to work. Pili already has a career-high in threes made, field goals made and assists. Pili has been a perfect fit in this Utes’ high-flying offense.

“She has earned my trust as someone that is incredibly reliable. Our whole team is that way. I think that’s kind of our secret sauce but they’re just so dang consistent. She is incredibly consistent. She shows up the same way every day. She goes really hard in practice. I’ve seen her leadership really grow through the course of the season,” coach Roberts said. “You come into a new team new program, even as an upperclassman you’re still the new kid on the block and you’re gonna earn your right to talk. She did that very well. She didn’t come in saying jump on my back, here we go. She earned her teammates trust, by working her tail off and buying into how we do things. And I told her that that, you’re gonna adapt to us, we’re not gonna adapt to you. She’s just done a remarkable job, but her leadership has really gotten better. She’s, she’s vocal in team meetings. Vocal on the bench, but she’s still just kind of steady eddy Alissa.”

Pili has helped lead the Utes to new heights this season. Last season, Utah surprised many people, finishing sixth in the Pac-12, making the Pac-12 championship game and making the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 season. Utah was picked fifth in the preseason poll this year and received the only other first-place vote besides Stanford. The Utes have once again blown away expectations.

They currently sit in second in the Pac-12, No. 8 in the most recent AP poll and a projected 2 seed in the NCAA tournament based on the committee’s recent top 16 reveal. That would be the highest seed in program history. The Utes have the highest-scoring offense in the Pac-12, averaging 83.8 points per game, which is good for the fifth-highest-scoring offense in the country. The Utes led the Pac-12 last year in scoring and averaged eight points less than they do this year. They are also top 15 in the country in FG%, assists and threes made per game. A lot of this success can be attributed to Pili.

“I think a key reason. I don’t know if the key. I think definitely a key, I think we have our core group back and they worked their asses off in the summer. They’re very motivated and driven and improved. I think it’s a combination of that and our experience last year that kind of spring boarded us and then you know you add in Alissa and it’s been fun,” said coach Roberts.

Utah Utes vs. Washington Huskies at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Utah Athletics

On top of helping to lead one of the top-ranked offenses in the country, Pili has been incredibly clutch for the Utes this season. In the game against Ole Miss early in the season, Pili scored 10 of the Utes’ 19 points to help seal the victory. Then, on Jan. 15th against No. 14 Arizona, she hit the game-winning free throws with 0.6 seconds left to give Utah the victory. Then, two weeks later, against UCLA, Pili hit the game-tying three with 41 seconds left before making an acrobatic game-winning layup with less than two seconds left in the game. Her ability to make winning plays has been a huge part of the Utes’ success this year.

“I honestly could say that this year is probably the only time I’ve been in those situations besides maybe my freshman year. My team counts on me for a lot. My coaches count on me for a lot. I think it all comes with the preparation that makes me so ready for those types of situations. When those times do come, I just stay confident and you know, stay calm and just do what I need to do,” Pili said of her clutch play.

While Pili has been a star this year for Utah, she takes a lot of pride in her heritage. Pili is of Polynesian descent, a culture where family is highly valued. She feels her family has been her biggest support her entire career. They have made so many sacrifices for Pili and her siblings to put them in the best position possible. Pili also knows she wouldn’t have made it this far without all they’ve done for her.

On top of her family support, Pili has embraced her Polynesian heritage in other ways, including the tattoo she has on her right leg. Pili started getting the tattoo at the age of 15 and says it’s a representation of the Polynesian culture. The tattoo runs the length of her leg and has flowers and woven designs that are a part of Polynesian culture. Since moving to Utah, Pili has seen a lot more Polynesian people and has really embraced being a role model for others in her community.

“I take a lot of pride in it, especially because you don’t see a lot of Polynesian women’s basketball players or basketball players in general. It’s something I do take a lot of pride in. Ever since I’ve been here at Utah, I’ve been seeing a lot more just Polynesian people coming out to the games and little Polynesian girls coming up to me after the game and it makes me so happy to know that I’m having an impact on them.” Pili said.

Since joining the Utes, Pili has put in so much work to become the star. When you watch her play, she is big, aggressive and plays with a lot of energy. However, her style of play doesn’t describe who Pili is as a person. She is a kindhearted person who gets a lot of her personality traits from being a part of a big family and having to take care of others. She also is a great singer, and she is not shy about it. Above all, Pili cares about others and has clearly found a home and a family in Salt Lake City. “She’s probably one of the sweetest kids, you know, she can look intimidating, but she’s very kindhearted. I think she’s a good friend. Like she cares about people. She’s motivated by her family. Very connected there. She’s an incredible singer. I don’t know if you’ve heard that. She can really sing. But if she’s not insecure, like shy or embarrassed about it, she’ll sing. And then she’s just chill, she’s just a chill human,” said Roberts when describing her star forward.

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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