The last two seasons of SUU women’s basketball have been magical. After going 3-27 the T-Birds hired Tracy Sanders away from St. Mary’s College to take over a difficult rebuild for a team that hadn’t won more than eight games since the 2014-15 season.
But in a short time, Sanders has done what many thought would take several more years. Her first year saw the team improve to eight victories and win their first conference tournament game in seven years. This season has put expectations on the program few thought they could have so quick.
Despite losing to the Idaho State Bengals 70-63 on day two of the Big Sky Conference Tournament, Sanders looked to the culture she has built at SUU in her short time, something she feels is completely different than even last year.
“I think last year we were scared to lose,” Sanders said after her team’s loss. “This year, I think [the team] comes in with an expectation of winning every game. [The culture] has changed and so much of it has had to do with [Rebecca Cardenas and Harley Hansen].”
Cardenas’ fight was visible throughout tTuesday’s loss. Despite being shut down by Idaho State freshman guard Diaba Konate, Cardenas fought to keep her team in the game.
“[Konate] did a good job of denying me and really being physical with me,” said Cardenas. “She wasn’t afraid to grab me sometimes and get me out of my rhythm. She did a really good job of guarding me… I just tried to be aggressive when I could be and make the right play.”
Konate’s defense disrupted the T-Bird offense more than the team would have liked. Cardenas finished the game shooting 3 of 9 from the floor and one assist, the fewest assists she’s recorded since February 6 at Northern Colorado.
With Cardenas locked down on the offensive side of the ball, the T-Birds had to look for other ways to get points on board. The closest the team could get to more points was through Harley Hansen, who led the T-Birds with 13 points on the night.
Overall, the T-Birds shot just 37 percent from the floor and only recorded six assists.
Perhaps one of the hardest moments in the game came when Cardenas fouled out in the final minute. As Cardenas walked to the bench, SUU fans around the CenturyLink Arena rose to their feet to thank Cardenas for her contributions over her career.
“We did better the last two years, especially getting our first tournament win in quite a while,” said Cardenas. “I wish I could keep playing but unfortunately we didn’t get it done.”
The T-Birds still have a chance to make a postseason tournament, but it won’t be the NCAA tournament. Instead, the team will hope for an official invite to the Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament.
“We filled out some paperwork, they sent us something, but you never know,” said Sanders. “18 wins is great, but I think it just comes down to what happens on Monday. We’re going to take some time off and get our bodies healthy and go from there. It would be a great thing, but you never know.”
With 18 wins this season, the T-Birds equaled their win total from the previous three seasons combined. Cardenas won the second individual award since the T-Birds joined the Big Sky, with Darri Frandsen winning Reserve of the Year before serving her LDS mission.
With Cardenas named to the First Team All-Big Sky, she also became the first T-Bird named to the team since Hailey Mandelko in 2013-14.
For now, the T-Birds will sit out Selection Sunday and wait for Monday to find out the destiny for the 2019-20 season.
Story by: Kurt Meacham
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics