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Meet the queens of March Madness: University of Utah senior forward Alissa Pili


All right, everybody. Meet Alissa Pili.


ALISSA PILI: (Singing) Some people live for the fortune.

CHANG: She's got many talents but is better known as one of the best college basketball players in the country - a forward for the University of Utah Utes.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Pili massages her way away in for the finish. (Inaudible). Alissa Pili is putting on a show.


It's been a banner year for women's college basketball, with viewership up 60% across national networks. Now, with March Madness upon us, we've talked with some of the star players poised for a deep run in the NCAA tournament - today, Alissa Pili, the second oldest of nine kids, who grew up in Alaska.

PILI: All of my siblings played sports growing up, so there was always something to do. We were always watching each other's games and things like that. And, I mean, in Alaska, it was super-fun. It was never boring - definitely a lot of fighting, but, you know, it's all love at the end of the day.

CHANG: She carried that competitive spirit through her adolescence, racking up more than a dozen state championships in volleyball, track and field, wrestling and her main sport, basketball. Then she was recruited to play for the University of Southern California.

SHAPIRO: But she admits she lost her edge, especially after she lost a close family member. So Pili, who is of Samoan and Native Alaskan descent, went home. She recalibrated and transferred to Utah.

PILI: When I got to Utah, I think that, you know, I kind of got my groove back again. I don't know. Like, I really was just playing, like, carefree - like, not thinking about it. And that's kind of where, you know, I just took off.

CHANG: Well, that's an understatement. Pili was named the Pac-12's player of the year last season. In last year's NCAA tournament, Utah lost a close game to the eventual national champion, Louisiana State University.

PILI: They won the championship, and we were right there. And I think that was also just, like, motivation. And we could really compete with anybody when we play, you know, our best basketball.

CHANG: Pili says she lives for those moments.

PILI: It's kind of like you got to have that attitude of, like, you don't really care who you're going up against. I think playing a school that's supposed to be, like, top dog or, like, playing a player who's the talk of the town - like, that kind of drives me to want to, like, beat them more. I don't know. I just got to show up.

SHAPIRO: This year Alissa Pili and Utah have earned a No. 5 seed and kick off their tournament against South Dakota State on Saturday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "CUFF IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Patrick Jarenwattananon
[Copyright 2024 NPR]