It seems only fitting that Alaska’s premier women’s college basketball tournament features one of the state’s greatest female athletes ever to grace the hardwood.
That is exactly what will happen Saturday night at the Alaska Airlines Center when Anchorage’s Alissa Pili and Division I powerhouse University of Utah take on her hometown team, University of Alaska Anchorage, in the Great Alaska Shootout.
“It’s super exciting and something I’ve been looking forward to,” Pili said. “Just to come home to everyone I grew up with and my family and people who maybe couldn’t come out and see me play (in college). A bunch of people have been talking about it, so it should be fun.”
The tournament, in its second year after returning from a hiatus, will be played Saturday and Sunday.
When she first found out that the plans were put in motion and that she was going to get to come home and play for the only time in her collegiate career, Pili was elated.
“I hopped on the phone with my family as soon as I found out and told them that we’d be coming up there,” she said. “It’s a cool thing in college if you ever get to go home and play.”
Pili anticipates a big crowd on Saturday night and expects some of her family from Utqiagvik will come down for the game.
“I’ve been telling my team that half of the stadium is going to be filled with my family,” she said.
Her father, Billy Pili, will likely be leading the charge with chants when his daughter comes out onto the court on Saturday night and following every one of her buckets.
“We’re pretty stoked and it’s just crazy to have her home to play in front of her family in her hometown,” he said in a September interview.
To come back to where it all started for her will be a “full circle moment” said Pili after everything she has accomplished since leaving the state. She was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year following her 2019-20 season at USC and Pac-12 Player of the Year as well as earning First Team All-Conference and AP Second-Team All-American honors as a junior for the 2022-2023 season.
“Alaska and the people there are a big part of that so just going home and getting to play in front of them is just a super cool opportunity and a great way to end my collegiate career,” Pili said.
As much as she loves her hometown and even attended several skills camps at UAA, Pili didn’t consider staying in the Last Frontier to continue her athletic career after high school.
“I honestly never saw myself staying home and playing college ball,” Pili said
Excitement for the continued growth of women’s college hoops
Even though he missed out being able to coach her at the collegiate level, UAA head women’s basketball coach Ryan McCarthy is glad that he was able to help bring her home to play at the Alaska Airlines Center for the first time since she led Dimond High School to its second straight state basketball championship as a senior in 2019.
“Utah very well could have a good season after Alissa leaves but Anchorage is going to care a lot more while she is there,” McCarthy said. “I know there is large local support for her and what she has done in her career and I think that it is just good for women’s basketball in general.”
He believes that this year will be big for the continued growth of women’s basketball nationwide after the ascension to prominence of programs such as Iowa, reigning national champion LSU, and Pili’s Utes who were nationally ranked and made it to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a really important year that players like Alissa have good seasons,” McCarthy said. “There’s Caitlin Clark at Iowa and they’ve sold out their season tickets because people are showing a very large interest in the sport of women’s basketball and it’s growing really rapidly.”
The popularity of the sport on the women’s side has exploded over the past few years because of players like Clark, LSU’s Angel Reese and Pili, who is grateful to have been able to help pioneer that growth.
“It’s cool to see because my freshman year and before I came to Utah while I was at USC, I didn’t experience all the hype around women’s basketball,” she said. “To experience that now is cool and everybody is getting the recognition that we deserve. It makes it more fun with all the energy and support behind it.”
Key to hot start and source of motivation
Pili appears to have picked up where she left off in her breakout junior season to open her senior campaign. She dropped 26 points in just 15 minutes of action in the first half of the Utes’ season-opening win over Mississippi Valley State University last Tuesday. Two days later, she recorded her first double-double of the season in a win over South Carolina State University on Thursday.
“It’s been smooth so far and our team is at a great place right now this early in the season,” Pili said. “We still have some stuff to work on.”
As far as her individual game, she is focusing on refining the details of her game and staying “sharp, consistent, and efficient.
“My mindset literally right after the loss to LSU that ended our season last year was motivated and hungry,” Pili said. “I do not want to lose so just having that mindset of not even considering losing as an option and just fighting for every win. I believe it’s realistic too because of the team we have.”
She believes that the Utes are going to be hard for anyone to beat when they come out and execute and approach every game with winning being the only goal in mind.
“When we’re on top of our stuff and we come into every game with that mindset, we can accomplish what we want to do,” Pili said.
While some young talented athletes born and raised in Alaska can’t wait to get out and rarely if ever look or give back, Pili and her older brother Brandon who plays professional football for the Miami Dolphins have gone out and made their dreams come true and love coming back home as often as they can.
“Brandon and Alissa are true Alaska kids,” Billy Pili said. “They’re true to this place, they’re here every summer, and as soon as they have time off.”
Alissa knows how difficult it is for young Alaska athletes to get exposure and set themselves up to pursue their dreams of competing at the collegiate level due to the remote geographical location of the state to the Lower 48. However, she hopes that her journey can inspire the younger generation to not give up because it’s living proof of what is possible.
“It’s cool to be in a position where athletes up there can look at me, hear my story, and know it can be done,” Pili said. “I think being that motivation for the kids there is something I carry around with pride and it motivates me to want to be better and want to be a good role model for everybody there.”