Rebecca Cardenas unlocks her phone in a quiet moment before her next class begins. She opened it up to look at her wallpaper.
Her wallpaper is a screenshot of an official Big Sky promotional graphic depicting seven players selected to the 2019-20 preseason all-conference team, as selected by coaches, sports information staff and media members. Cardenas doesn’t appear in the graphic. The senior guard mulls over her absence from the team often.
One day after a 20 point performance in SUU’s Dec. 31 win over Portland State, Cardenas tweeted a screenshot of the image with the caption, “My wallpaper… I told y’all they left me out.”
On Jan. 16, 2020, Cardenas eclipsed the 1,000 point mark during a 26 point outing at Northern Arizona University.
“I would never have imagined this,” Cardenas said. “It’s insane to me, getting to 1,000 points.”
As Cardenas returns her phone to her pocket, her elastic wristband that reads “prove them “prove them wrong” is visible.
“Last year, I was awarded [Big Sky] honorable mention, which I was pretty excited about,” Cardenas said. “But this year [the rankers] didn’t select me for the preseason all-conference team. I know my abilities on the court and the capability I have of making my teammates better. [The rankers] apparently seem to ignore all of that.”
The preseason vote was not the first time Cardenas was overlooked. The 5-foot-5 guard has had to prove the doubters wrong throughout her life.
Cardenas can’t remember when she stopped growing because it feels like it was so long ago. She played soccer and baseball growing up, but connected deeply with basketball and decided to specialize in it. That decision meant she would have to play at a disadvantage every time she competed, but Cardenas was not bothered.
There were no shortcuts available. Cardenas couldn’t rely on her height to make an impact on the game, so if she wanted to be a successful basketball player, then she was going to have to outwork and outsmart her taller competition. That became part of Cardenas’ identity.
She learned to take advantage of her size to navigate tight corridors and how to use subtle head and shoulder fakes to buy enough time to get her shot inside. Point guard duties like passing and getting steals came naturally, and she built her game around those skills.
The El Paso Times named Cardenas the 1-5A Player of the Year award after she led Burges High School to 1-5A District, Bi-District, Area, and Regional Quarterfinal Championships in her senior year. Still, Cardenas received very little attention from college scouts.
Weber State University pursued her for much of her senior season, but she never received a scholarship offer from the Wildcats. Saint Mary’s University at San Antonio, a Division II program, showed interest in her, but Cardenas wanted a Division I shot.
With only one week remaining before the national signing period, it seemed like that shot would never come. Then her phone rang. SUU’s then-head coach Chris Boettcher wanted to invite her to campus for a visit.
“I took the opportunity that presented [itself], and it felt special when I walked on campus.”
When she arrived to begin practice for the 2016-17 season, she quickly emerged as one of the most versatile players on the team. Boettcher was so impressed by her effort in practice that she won the starting point guard spot.
She wrote her name in the history books in just her freshman season. Cardenas finished with the third most assists and steals in a single season in SUU history. She finished that season leading the team in minutes played, assists and steals during her freshman season.
The team finished 6-24, losing all 15 of their road contests. Losing so much was tough, but in 2017-18 it became nearly unbearable.
Cardenas improved in PPG with a more significant offensive role, but the T-Birds finished 3-27, the worst record in program history.
Despite the losing and a nagging knee injury, Cardenas refused to give in and led the team in assists and steals once again, but the team was broken. She couldn’t simply outwork everyone and lead her team to victory anymore. Boettcher was dismissed after the season, leaving the sophomore’s future uncertain.
When Tracy Sanders was hired to replace Boettcher, she understood Cardenas’ drive and saw her as the engine needed to turn the program around. Sanders pushed Cardenas out of her comfort zone as a distributor by encouraging her to look for her own shot.
“[Cardenas] doesn’t take days off,” Sanders said. “As a coach, that’s kind of your dream to have players that get after it every single day. You don’t find players like that all the time.”
Sanders studied tape and box scores of her new team before moving to Cedar City to coach them. Cardenas stuck out as a key contributor, and the head coach saw the guard’s potential.
“She gets the team going; she motivates them,” Sanders continued. “She’s got the mentality that she’s not going to let anyone beat us.”
There were a few growing pains, but as a junior improved from 8.4 PPG her sophomore season to 11.1 PPG and was named to the Big Sky Honorable Mention team. SUU improved to 8-23, their best record since Cardenas arrived.
Through her first three seasons at SUU, Cardenas’ squads were 18-73. The seasons of losing motivated her to find another gear, and Sanders saw that Cardenas’ next step as a player would come as a lead scoring option.
For the first time in her career, the player whose Twitter handle is @pointguardbecs would be playing shooting guard.
That meant transitioning from quarterback to wide receiver. Instead of bringing the ball up and making plays to get teammates open, Cardenas would wait for sophomore Claudia Armato to initiate the offense and finish possessions with a shot.
Sanders’ show of faith opened the lid on Cardenas’ ability. While continuing to lead the team in steals and assists, Cardenas leads the Big Sky conference in PPG with 18.4, and the 2019-20 T-Birds matched last season’s win total with 16 games remaining on the schedule.
“I think she’s really expanded her game this year, and she’s had to look for her own shot more” Sanders continued. “Sometimes that means passing up a wide-open shot from a non-shooter, so she can take a contested shot. We have that faith in her.”
As a junior, Cardenas attempted 266 field goals. Halfway through her senior season, she’s taken 225. That sets her on pace for 550, more than she took in her freshman and sophomore seasons combined.
An increase in volume like that usually comes with a drop in efficiency, but Cardenas is shooting 42% from the field, up from 39% in 2018-19.
The rise in her scoring is due in large part to Sanders’ implementation of Armato in the starting lineup. Instead of being pestered continuously on her way up the court, Cardenas simply waits for Armato to bring the ball up. Armato also lightens the burden defensively, often matching up the team’s dominant guard.
Armato’s duties are the ones Cardenas bore during her first three seasons at SUU, but relinquishing them keeps Cardenas fresh late in games.
Cardenas has turned it up in the fourth quarter, attacking pick and rolls with patience and confidence. Sanders puts the game in Cardenas’ hands, and the senior has delivered with emotion.
In a game against Oral Roberts University, Cardenas blocked a three-point attempt, grabbed the loose ball and ran a one-person fast break against three defenders. She zipped past one, slid between the other two and was fouled in the process of laying the ball in. Her body crashed to the floor, but Cardenas sat up, pounded her chest and let out a roar.
By the end of the season, the El Paso native will likely claim the No. 2 spot on SUU’s all-time assist list, and will have recorded more steals than any SUU women’s basketball player.
The last milestone she hopes to reach is the Big Sky all-conference team. She’s proven everyone else wrong: all that’s left is the voters.
“I show it on the court, and it’s evident in my production and stats. This year I’m working towards proving all of them wrong and proving that I am one of the best in our conference. Will they award me at the end of the season? Only time will tell, but I know they see what‘s going on over here and that our team isn’t a brush-off team no more.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by Christopher Dimond