College Basketball takes on a new madness in March. With conference tournaments beginning, every game matters. For smaller conferences such as the Big Sky, where only the postseason champion receives an invite to the NCAA tournament, losing means the end of the season.
Southern Utah University women’s basketball came into the Big Sky Tournament as the six seed, missing out on the five seed by just one game. But the consolation prize wasn’t bad.
A third matchup with archrival Weber State, who posted the worst record in the conference, seemed like a good thing. But the T-Birds had to survive a tight game from the Wildcats, escaping 62-58 on March 9.
“That’s the fun thing about March,” said T-Bird head coach Tracy Sanders. “Everybody’s going to give you their best game… You have to be ready to play every single night.”
The first half appeared to be a nightmare for the T-Birds as they could only manage 10 of 25 from the field, with only two shots made from three point range.
On the defensive end, the team allowed Weber State to shoot 15-27 from the field with Wildcat junior forward Kayla Watkins scoring 13 points.
However, the Thunderbirds were able to keep the game close, trailing 30-29 with just over a minute left before halftime. The Wildcats went into halftime with momentum after Ashley Thoms hit a jumper just before the buzzer, giving her team a 32-29 lead at the half.
“We knew Weber State was going to come out strong and they were going to give it their all,” said senior guard Rebecca Cardenas. “They did have a tough season. In the past, that’s how we were. We were going to come out guns firing and do whatever we can to make the best of our season.”
Despite making adjustments at halftime, the T-Birds found themselves down 36-33 nearing the six minute mark of the third quarter. After making a quick substitution that saw Darri Frandsen and Ashely Larsen come in, the team would go on a 10-2 run over the next four minutes.
After being named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and being a unanimous selection for the All-Big Sky First Team, Cardenas helped her team claw to their first lead since the first basket of the game.
“That’s [Cardenas] on the norm,” said Sanders. “We’ve jumped on her back this whole year. I’ve said it over and over, but [she] is probably the most competitive kid I’ve ever coached. When it’s crunch time, she’s going to make plays and she’s done that all year.”
With the T-Birds leading 43-41 going into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats attempted to make a run and only trailed 47-46 when Watkins hit a three point jumper with six minutes left in the game. But the T-Birds responded with a 7-1 run of their own, capped off by a Cardenas three pointer to put her team ahead 54-47.
The Wildcats would never get closer than four for the rest of the game, as the T-Birds went on to win the game, the second consecutive year advancing in the Big Sky Tournament.
Before the game, Cardenas was named to the All-Conference First Team after being left off the preseason selections before the season started.
“It’s nice to be respected,” said Cardenas on the award. “I have much more respect for that award now because I see how consistent you have to be. I’m happy [I got the award], but I’m not content. I know we have more to prove so I’m looking forward to the rest of our games this season.”
Cardenas finished with 28 points and seven steals, while Jessica Chatman finished with eight points and five rebounds.
Watkins finished with 23 points on 10-15 shooting for the Wildcats, while redshirt junior Liz Graves notched 11 points and six rebounds.
The T-Birds will now turn their attention to the third seeded Idaho State Bengals, with who they split the season series. SUU beat the Bengals in overtime in Cedar City 72-65 while the Bengals got their revenge in Pocatello 73-54. The third matchup will tip off 30 minutes after Idaho and Portland State finish their game, slated for a 5:30 p.m. tip off.
Story by: Kurt Meacham
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics