Once Rivals, Sisters Eaton and Graves’ Bond Proving Key to Women’s Basketball Success

Leading by just two points midway through the second quarter, Southern Utah women’s basketball player Madelyn Eaton navigates a screen-and-roll at the extended elbow.

Eaton patiently finds the hole in Brigham Young University’s stingy 2-3 zone and dishes it to her pick-and-roll partner for an open 3-pointer in the corner. On the surface, it may seem like a play the sophomore guard has run hundreds of times since she committed to be a T-Bird, but in truth, it’s rather unusual. 

The players show a near-telepathic connection in the play, which makes sense, given that the screener Eaton found in the corner was her older sister, Liz Graves.

“That play… when I kicked it to her in the corner, I knew it was in,” Eaton said. On a second view, Eaton can be seen heading back on defense before Graves’ shot found the bottom of the net.

Graves played with, in her words, a “chip on her shoulder,” and scored a career-high 34 points against her former team in SUU’s losing effort to the Cougars on Dec. 18. Watching Eaton assist Graves is nothing new to SUU fans. Of Eaton’s 14 assists this season, six have been scored by Graves. 

“We have the same mindset,” Graves said. “We sync up really well.”

The bond the sisters share is proving key to the T-Birds’ efforts to build on a historic 2019-20 campaign where the team won 18 games. Neither sister thought they’d ever suit up for the same university, but now that the opportunity has presented itself, they’re taking advantage.

How it Came to Be: Liz Graves

After scoring more than 24 PPG in her junior season at Maple Mountain High School in Spanish Fork, Utah, Graves followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Lexie Eaton Rydalch, and committed to BYU.

“I chose BYU because they’re a winning program,” Graves told the Salt Lake Tribune back in 2015. “And I like to win.”

Graves exceeded her junior year stats with an impressive senior season, leading the Utah 4A division in scoring with 27.7 PPG — 6.7 points more than the next leading scorer in the state, but a late-season injury delayed Graves’ initial start with the Cougars.

With her older sister now in the WNBA and a late initiation due to the ACL injury, Graves struggled to make any impact in her first year at BYU, averaging just 1.2 PPG and 0.6 RPG.

Despite fully recovering in time for her sophomore season, Graves again failed to  see consistent playing time, averaging just 3.1 PPG and 1.7 RPG for head coach Jeff Judkins.

“I’m still not sure why I didn’t get more minutes,” Graves said in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune back in 2018. “I figured my playing style doesn’t fit with their system.” 

After two seasons at BYU, Graves elected to transfer to Weber State University.

Graves’ role immediately changed as a Wildcat. The redshirt junior saw her playing time increase from 7.8 minutes per game at BYU to 24.6 at Weber. Her scoring average increased to 11.0 PPG. She became the team’s leading scorer, second leading rebounder (5.7 RPG), and second best 3-point shooter at 35%.

Despite the boom in personal statistics, Graves’ team struggled during the 2019-20 season. The Wildcats lost 15 games in a row on their way to a 4-26 record, and finished the season with a per game point differential of -17.6 PPG.

“At Weber, when we’d get down in the game, we’d fold,” Graves said. “We’d look at the score and say to ourselves ‘Well, we lost,’ and just give up.”

At the end of Graves’ junior season, she knew she had an important decision to make. She had to decide whether to stay in Ogden, or try one more time elsewhere.

Staying at Weber State likely meant more minutes and the opportunity to be the focal point of the offense. It also likely meant sacrificing the one thing Graves wanted to do most when she initially committed to BYU: winning.

At the end of the day, Graves wanted her collegiate career to mean more than 26 losses and a handful of BYU minutes.

Plenty of schools would benefit from the scoring and rebounding Graves provides on a nightly basis. Nonetheless, the recent rise of SUU’s basketball program under head coach Tracy Sanders and the opportunity to play with her younger sister was too good to pass up.

How it Came to Be: Madelyn Eaton

Eaton posted similar numbers to Graves during her junior season at Maple Mountain High School, finishing as the state’s fourth leading scorer with 24.7 PPG. After transferring to Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah for her senior season, Eaton led the 6A division in scoring with 19.2 PPG. 

SUU head coach Tracy Sanders fell in love with Eaton’s attitude during her high school campaign and pursued the 5’8” guard.

“I love the intensity [Eaton] will bring to our program,” said Sanders after Eaton committed to the T-Birds back in 2018. “She is a true competitor with a great basketball IQ.”

Eaton committed to play for Sanders and the T-Birds on national collegiate signing day in 2018.

She spent the majority of her freshman year in a sixth-man role, playing the fifth most minutes for Sanders while coming off the bench. Eaton excelled in her role as a catch-and-shoot threat, and showed flashes of being able to create for herself.

Perhaps the highlight of her freshman season was a 20-point outing in the season opener against California Fullerton University. Throughout the season, Eaton averaged 7.4 PPG while playing the fifth most minutes on the team with 19.1.

How it Came Together:

Toward the end of the 2019-2020 season, the Wildcats traveled to the America First Events Center to face off against the T-Birds. SUU came out on top 82-66, but Graves performed well, scoring 15 points and snagging nine boards. 

The worst part of that game for Graves, however, wasn’t the loss.

“For me, it made my heart hurt,” Graves said of the game. “I was setting some hard screens on her.”

Just weeks later, SUU and WSU faced off once again in the Big Sky tournament. SUU came out victorious, but the remainder of the season was canceled just days later due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the season canceled, the time came for Graves to make her decision regarding whether to stay or go for her senior year.

Sanders needed to bolster her roster after losing seven of her 13 players to either transfers or graduation, including every member of her starting five last season.

With the team lacking a dynamic playmaker after the graduation of leading scorer Rebecca Cardenas, Sanders was attracted to Graves’ ability to create for herself on the offensive end after watching her compete against the T-Birds.

“Liz has a ton of versatility and is an incredible offensive rebounder, especially at the guard spot,” Sanders said. “She plays extremely hard.”

With her coach’s support, Eaton led the recruiting charge as her older sister weighed her options. For SUU, it didn’t hurt that they had a little bird set in Graves’ ear.

“I kept telling her all the time ‘I just want you to have one good year,’” Eaton said. “And that’s why I wanted her to come here.”

In late June 2020, the parents of Eaton and Graves received the news that two of their daughters would finally wear the same college basketball jersey on game day. Graves had officially transferred to SUU.

The advantage of being sisters and teammates proved advantageous early on. Because of their relation, they had a few loopholes through the COVID-19 restrictions placed on teammates and were allowed to train together over the summer while the rest of the SUU roster was told to quarantine apart from each other. 

“My high school coach was nice enough to let us come in and shoot in the high school gym,” Eaton said. “We were also able to play pick-up with some ex-D-I players, which was good for us because we’ve never really played with each other, only against each other.”

Graves and Eaton are spaced apart in age just enough that they were never able to play meaningful minutes on the floor together growing up. Graves’ senior year of high school marked Eaton’s freshman year of high school.

Nonetheless, the two sisters seem to be of the same mind as they play their first season together.

“It’s easy to lead with Maddy because we have the same goals and values,” Graves said.

In the first month of the season, Graves and Eaton have helped the T-Birds to a 3-2 record in non-conference play. Graves leads the team in scoring (17.0 PPG) and is second in rebounding (8.7 RPG). She has already secured Big Sky Player of the Week honors on the young season. 

Eaton is fourth on the team in scoring, despite shooting just 29% on the season. She  has experienced a bit of a shooting slump so far, shooting 3-of-15 in the team’s first game against Utah Valley University, 1-of-8 against Grand Canyon University, and just 2-of-7 BYU.

The poor field goal percentage doesn’t bother Eaton, and T-Bird fans shouldn’t expect the sophomore to quit letting it fly any time soon.

“I’m not worried about percentages,” Eaton said. “My team needs me to shoot. The only way to shoot out of a shooting slump is to shoot.”

Eaton may be struggling to make shots so far this season, but when she’s on, the points come in bunches. In SUU’s blow out win against Dixie State University, Eaton scored 15 points and went 2-3 from downtown. 

Eaton’s high volume shooting pulls defenders away from the basket, opening up space inside for Graves to post up and grab offensive rebounds underneath.

“Maddy’s shooting really takes the pressure off me,” Graves said. “I’m able to get easy looks as a result.”

The strong inside-outside play of the two sisters has the potential to cause serious problems for opponents. The tandem claims to have a sneaky connection that only siblings can obtain. 

“It’s like a sixth sense,” Maddy said. “If I miss, she knows where the rebound is going to be. I know whether or not her shot is going in before she shoots it.”

This skill developed over years of playing playground hoops with their four other siblings, but it doesn’t hurt that the two are best friends.

“We get asked all the time if we ever get sick of each other, but really we talk about everything,” Eaton said. “We’re really close. And it helps that we are both in the same situation playing college basketball.”

Sanders herself has seemed to notice the connection. 

In SUU’s first game against UVU, Graves came off the bench. However, after a brief petition by Eaton, Sanders moved Graves into the starting lineup at forward to play to the duo’s advantage.

“I work really well with Liz coming off on ball screens,” Eaton said. “I know what she’s going to do, if she’s going to pop or if she’s going to roll.”

The sisterly connection within the pick-and-roll offense has the potential to cause opposing defenses to adjust schemes throughout any given game. If Eaton can find her shot and connect consistently from deep, SUU will boast one of the best inside-outside games in the conference.

While Graves and Eaton are both leaders on the floor, they are never shy about praising their teammates. Graves attributed her Big Sky Player of the Week honors to her team.

“I’ve never had a more supportive team,” Graves said. “This team is so resilient and it’s just fun to play with them.”

Together, Graves and Eaton are confident and ready to move forward into conference play. They square off against Montana State on Dec. 31 in Cedar City.

“With every game, we come closer together,” Graves said. “This team is resilient, and we are going to make a statement every night.”

Story by: Kelton Jacobsen
Photos Courtesy of SUU Athletic Department  Strategic Communications