Sports

Set for greater success: Alaska basketball star Alissa Pili is thriving in her new environment

Utah's Alissa Pili of Anchorage dribbles in a game against the University of Oklahoma

The second chapter of Alissa Pili’s collegiate basketball career is off to a red-hot start in her first season playing at the University of Utah after transferring from the University of Southern California in spring.

The former Anchorage prep star currently leads the undefeated Utes in scoring with a career-high 19.9 points per game and has recorded double figures in all but one game during the team’s 7-0 run to start the 2022-23 season.

The former three-time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year at Dimond High credits her new head coach, Lynne Roberts, as the biggest reason for her explosive start to the year. Pili said she is constantly being put in the best position to excel and succeed at a high level.

“She really knows my strengths, and I think she uses me and puts me in the best position to use (my strengths),” Pili said. “I think just the playing style that we have over here just goes perfectly with my game, and I’ve been able to thrive off of that.”

Pili could’ve been a Ute from the start of her college career, but she unknowingly ghosted her future head coach during the recruiting process coming out of high school.

“Coach Roberts told me when I was in high school, she called and I never picked up,” Pili said with a laugh. “I don’t really remember that, but she claimed that she tried to call and I wasn’t talking to them.”

She spends a lot of time dedicating herself to improving and refining her game by staying after practice almost every day to work on her shooting skills. One area of her game that was a big focus for Pili upon arriving at Utah was her overall fitness level and conditioning.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I sat down with my strength coach, and I told him these are my goals and what I wanted to do for the season,” Pili said.

She spent the summer doing additional conditioning to help her get and stay in shape, and she still continues those practices now that the season is underway.

“I just do extra conditioning and stuff to get me in shape, so that I can stay out on the court and be at my best fitness,” Pilli said.

In addition to being the Utes’ leading scorer to start the season, Pili is also their second leading rebounder, with 30 of her 44 total boards coming on the defensive end. She prides herself on being a well-rounded player, which stems back to her time in the Last Frontier.

“Growing up, I was really a do-it-all kind of player in high school, especially my senior year,” Pili said. “I had to bring the ball up and go post up and pretty much do everything, so I think that really helped me and shaped me into a well-rounded player to be good at more than one thing on the basketball court.”

Utah's Alissa Pili of Anchorage goes to the basket against Southeastern Louisiana

Decision to transfer

Pili got off to as hot of a start as she could’ve hoped as a true freshman with the Trojans in the 2019-2020 season. She earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, All-Pac-12 Team and Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honors after leading the team in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg) and double-doubles (11).

By the end of her first collegiate season, she ranked in the nation’s top 100 in five statistical categories, including points scored (504), field-goal percentage (51.1%), double-doubles (11), free throws made (109) and field goals made (190).

She scored in double digits in 25 games, recorded double figures in the last 16 games of the season and was named to the Naismith Trophy Watch list and Katrina McClain Award Preseason Watch List heading into her sophomore season.

The Trojans hired a new coaching staff last season, and after a year under the new regime in which she averaged a career-low 7.8 points per game, Pili felt like the program “just wasn’t the right fit” anymore.

“I decided to transfer and look for a program whose coaches and playing style really set my game,” Pili said.

She said her transition and integration to Utah has been “really smooth.”

“It’s been great, the people here are great, our coaches are great, and the team is just very talented,” she said. “It’s just filled with a bunch of girls who just work hard and just want to play.”

She is confident that she made the right choice, and her blazing hot start to the season has coincided with the team’s success.

Importance of staying in the Pac-12

When she decided to transfer, there were several schools across the country that she was considering, but in the end, Pili wanted to stay within what is widely viewed as the best level of competition to challenge her and increase her chances of reaching her long-term career goals.

“This conference is pretty much the best in the country for women’s basketball, and I just want him to stay and compete with the best,” Pili said.

Her ultimate goal is to follow the footsteps of other legendary female Alaskan hoopsters, such as 2023 Alaska Sports Hall of Fame inductee Jessica Moore and Chicago Sky forward Ruthy Hebard, and play professionally both in the WNBA and overseas.

“There’s been a lot of great players who come out of the Pac-12, and just the connection that it has with the league and playing professionally,” Pili said. “I think just being in this conference alone, just this position, to further my career after this.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Making it to the WNBA has been a lifelong dream for Pili, but she would also like the opportunity to play overseas because she thinks it would be a “great opportunity just to meet new people” and embrace other cultures.

“It’s just been a dream of mine to be drafted and go to the league for sure, but going overseas is also something I’ve thought about and want to experience just to get out of the country and to experience a new way of life,” Pili said.

Many major overseas leagues don’t overlap with the WNBA season, so she won’t have to choose between the two opportunities when the time comes. She said many players can swing both throughout the year, and she would love to be one of them someday.

Dimond, Bartlett, girls basketball, girls state championship

Being an inspiration to young Alaskans

During her time in high school, she was a multisport star, four-time Cook Inlet Conference Player of the Year and two-time National Female Athlete of the Year selection by MaxPreps.

She earned the Pride of Alaska award from the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, was a four-time all-state and all-conference honoree in basketball, and she holds the Alaska state scoring record with 2,614 career points.

She is thankful for her upbringing, proud to be from Alaska and views it as a “big responsibility” that both adds some pressure and pushes her to be her best at the same time.

“Everybody over there is just so isolated from the rest of the world, and I think just to come out here and make a big name for myself, I carry that pride with me,” she said. “I try to represent my state well and my family.”

Blood is thicker than school spirit

Even though she now sees herself as a Ute through and through, she was still cheering on her former school when the USC and Utah football teams met in the Pac-12 championship game last weekend.

ADVERTISEMENT

Her older brother Brandon Pili plays defensive tackle for the Trojans and is in his redshirt senior season. Unfortunately for Pilis, USC and Heisman candidate Caleb Williams were shockingly upset by Utah in a 47-24 shellacking.

“That was a heartbreaker,” Pili said. “It sucked. I was mad, I can’t even lie.”

The loss knocked the Trojans out of the running for a spot in the College Football Playoffs, but she’ll still have one more chance to watch him play on Jan. 2 when USC plays Tulane in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.

Her brother will have the chance to watch her play against her old team in person later in the month — Jan. 27 — if he decides to take a road trip to Salt Lake City when Utah hosts USC.


Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Sponsored