After two false starts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Southern Utah University women’s basketball team will begin Big Sky Conference play against the University of Idaho on Friday January 8 and Saturday January 9. Both games will tip off at 7 p.m.
The Thunderbirds (3-2, 0-0) travel to Moscow to take on the Vandals (4-4, 3-1) for their first contest since handling in-state rivals Dixie State University 80-44 on Dec. 21.
The games were originally scheduled for Thursday and Saturday but were moved after SUU paused activities before the team’s matchup with Montana State University last week.
In all, the T-Birds will go 16 days without competitive action before confronting the Vandals, who were voted as favorites to win the Big Sky in the preseason coaches’ and media polls.
When the teams met in Moscow last season, the Vandals took care of business, winning 70-57. Idaho comes into the game on a 14-game winning streak against the T-Birds and leads the series 16-4 all-time. SUU has not won at the Cowan Spectrum since 1996 and is 2-8 all time in Moscow.
Idaho Scouting Report:
Preseason All-Big Sky selection Beyonce Bea leads the way for the Vandals and is off to a stellar start in her sophomore season after landing on the All-Big Sky Third team as a freshman.
Standing at 6’1”, Bea can score both inside and out, and she leads her team in scoring with 15.4 PPG — good for fifth-highest in the conference.
Senior Natalie Klinker leads the Big Sky in rebounding, averaging 11.5 RPG. Bea is fourth in the conference with 9.3 RPG.
The Vandals sport two of the conference’s most prolific 3-point snipers in junior Gina Marxen and freshman Sydney Gadney. The guards are in the top five of the conference in 3-pointers made per game and in the top ten in percentage of 3-point field goals made.
Marxen also stands in second in the conference in APG with 4.4 while also sporting the Big Sky’s best assist-to-turnover ratio. She’s the team’s offensive engine, manufacturing looks for Bea and knocking down shots from deep when required.
Head coach Jon Newlee currently has his team tied for second place in the Big Sky standings early in his 13th season at the helm. The Vandals opened the season with a sweep against Sacramento State and are knotted with Northern Arizona at 3-1 in conference play after splitting games with the Lumberjacks last week.
Keys to the Game:
1. The Battle of the Bullies
Redshirt senior Liz Graves is off to an incredible start to her career as a T-Bird. She leads the Big Sky in both scoring and FG%, an impressive feat highlighting not only her output but also her efficiency.
Graves has definitely put on some audacious scoring performances this season, including a 34-point masterpiece against Brigham Young University on December 18, but her contribution on the glass has vaulted the T-Birds to first place in RPG in the Big Sky (44.8).
While she can certainly knock down outside jumpers (36% 3FG), Graves does most of her work in the post: using crafty moves on the block to get to the basket, putting back offensive rebounds for easy second chance points or drawing fouls in the process.
Her intensity on the glass has been matched by fellow senior Darri Frandsen, and both players are tied for the team lead in RPG with 8.4. That average lands them tied for sixth most in the conference.
Only one pair of teammates in the conference is averaging more RPG than Graves and Frandsen: Klinker and Bea. The battle these pair of dynamic rebounding duos will have on the boards across back-to-back nights could be one for the ages.
Klinker, Bea and Frandsen are all listed at 6’1” and Graves is listed at 5’10”. There’s no distinct height advantage on either side, but whoever is able to use their positioning and grit to win their rebounding battle may very well emerge victorious in these contests.
2. A Return to Old Stomping Grounds?
With the way college basketball is evolving, it seems like players who transfer to a new university end up playing against their old schools a lot.
SUU shut down T-Bird transfer Shalyn Fano against Utah Valley to start the season, Graves torched her former Cougar teammates in December, and this weekend redshirt junior guard Cherita Daugherty may have the chance to for revenge against the university she originally committed to before transferring to Lower Columbia College and coming to SUU.
“May” is the operative word here though, as Daugherty left the game against Dixie State early due to an apparent ankle injury.
Daugherty has handled the playmaking duties during most of SUU’s key stretches in the early going this season, so her absence would come as a major blow to the T-Birds’ offensive flow.
When she’s at her best, Daugherty navigates screens at the perimeter of the defense and uses her quick first step and agility to find lanes toward the basket. She creates positions to finish at the rim, kick to shooters or draw fouls more than anyone else on the team with Graves the only exception.
Before the injury, Daugherty was one of the best players in the conference at getting to the line and converting. She’s shooting 85% (5th in BS) on 27 attempts (10th) thus far.
In SUU’s improbable come-from-behind victory over Grand Canyon, Daugherty was huge, drilling four clutch free throws and making two big assists down the stretch to get the win.
The T-Birds didn’t miss her too much after she went down against an overmatched Dixie State team, but against a stifling defensive team like Idaho, her ability to slash to the basket and draw fouls will be sorely missed.
If she is available, then it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff who initially recruited her out of high school approaches containing her.
3. Conference Intensity
The stats may be at least partially inflated by blowout wins against Dixie State and NAIA opponent William Jessup, but through non-conference play, SUU has a very impressive statistical resume.
The T-Birds are second in both scoring offense and defense in the conference. They lead the conference in rebounding and are second in field goal percentage.
As conference play finally begins against one of their strongest opponents on paper, the validity of those statistics will be put to the test. Will Graves cool down from her red-hot preseason? The T-Birds have benefited from poor free throw and 3-point shooting by their opponents. Will that come back to bite them against more talented Big Sky teams?
The T-Birds have already lost four conference games to COVID-19 this season, so how they play this weekend could set the tone for the rest of their season. Idaho is a very talented group and the T-Birds will have to be at their absolute best to have a puncher’s chance of beating them, especially given the circumstances. Will SUU be up for such a steep challenge coming off of a pause in activities?
Where, When, How to Watch
Both Friday and Saturday’s games are set to tip off at 7:00 p.m in Moscow, Idaho. They can be viewed on PlutoTV channel 1060.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication