Southern Utah University women’s basketball will put a four-game winning streak on the line as the T-Birds travel to Greeley, Colo. for a Thursday/Saturday series against the University of Northern Colorado.
With last week’s games against Idaho State were cancelled due to COVID-19 protocols, the T-Birds last contests happened two weeks ago when they swept Weber State University in a two game series.
SUU beat the Wildcats in game one of the series on Jan. 21 in Cedar City by a score of 77-68. Head coach Tracy Sanders and Co. led for all 40 minutes of the game— withstanding a fourth quarter push that brought the Wildcats within two points.
Game two of the series was far closer and took two overtimes to determine a winner. The T-Birds ultimately claimed victory in large part due to their ability to make clutch free throws, as all six T-Bird points in the second overtime came from the charity stripe.
Senior Liz Graves led the way for the T-Birds, averaging a double-double across the two games (19.5 PPG, 10 RPG) while shooting a combined 48% from the field. Junior Cherita Daugherty scored her career high in game two with 24 points.
SUU also claimed two victories over eventual Western Athletic Conference opponent University of Texas Rio Grande Valley three weeks ago. The Vaqueros had no answer for Graves in either game, as the Mapleton, Utah native scored a combined 51 points and snagged a total of 19 boards over the two games.
Sanders’ squad currently boasts the Big Sky’s best offense, averaging 73.5 points per game as a team. Graves maintains her position as the conference’s leading scorer with 19.0 PPG. SUU currently has an overall record of 7-4 while going 2-2 in conference play.
UNC comes into the series sitting at fourth place in the conference. So far, the Bears have a 6-6 conference record and are 7-10 overall. Of every team in the Big Sky, UNC has played the most total games with 17.
The Bears are led by sophomore Alisha Davis. Davis is the only player on the roster to start and play in every game thus far this season. She’s averaging 14.7 PPG while pulling down 10.0 RPG. She ranks fourth in the conference in steals (2.0 SPG) and second in blocks (2.3 BPG). She’s also the only Big Sky player who has pulled in more offensive rebounds than SUU’s Graves.
Davis’ offensive production is followed by sophomore Jasmine Gayles. A guard out of Seattle, Wash., Gayles is averaging 11.5 PPG while shooting 38% from 3-point range. Freshman Hannah Simental leads the Bears in overall 3-point shooting, posting a 54% clip on the season.
Head coach Jenny Huth has recruited a solid group of role players to support her top three scorers.
Junior Micayla Isenbart is averaging 7.9 PPG to go along with 5.1 RPG. Senior Alexis Chapman is coming off her best game of the season in a loss to Northern Arizona, scoring 13 points and hitting 4-of-6 from downtown.
As a squad, the Bears may not overwhelm opponents by their scoring output (62.2 points per game), but their defense is what causes their opponents’ problems. They rank third in the Big Sky in points allowed per game 65.4, fifth in blocks with 3.0 and third in defensive rebounding percentage at 72%.
With that said, UNC also shoots the 3-point ball at the highest percentage among teams in the Big Sky at 39% as a team.
The Bears struggle to rebound the ball efficiently, pulling down just 35.6 total rebounds per contest — last in the conference. Their 9.9 assists per game also ranks last in the Big Sky.
Keys to the Game
- Which will prevail, SUU’s offense or UNC’s defense?
SUU’s offense is led by Graves with 19.0 PPG, but the supporting cast of Cherita Daugherty, Darri Frandsen, and Madelyn Eaton combine for an additional 33.3 points per game. That’s a combined 52.3 points from the team’s top four scorers.
What’s better yet is the efficiency. Outside of Eaton, SUU’s top scorers are all averaging 45% and above from the field and 38% and above from downtown. As a squad, the T-Birds rank third in the Big Sky in total field goal percentage with 41%.
Northern Colorado plays remarkable team defense however, limiting their opponents to just 39% from the field and forcing 14 turnovers per game.
The “X”-factor here is 3-point shooting. The Bears allow their opponents to shoot 34% from deep. SUU is averaging just over 30% on the season, but its top three 3-point shooters — Graves, Frandsen and Daugherty — are shooting a combined 41% from long range. If UNC allows those three any open looks, the Bears could find themselves in a deep hole.
- Madelyn Eaton
Anyone who watched SUU play last season knows that it’s been a rough 2020-21 campaign thus far for Eaton.
Through 11 games, the sophomore is shooting 30% from the field and just 26% from deep. Her struggles have warranted questions about whether she should be a starter going forward.
Against UTRGV back on January 18, Eaton came off the bench and had arguably her best game of the season in more of a “microwave” role. She shot 5-of-7 from the field and 33% from deep while also assisting on three buckets.
Against WSU, she started both games, shooting 2-of-3 in game one and 3-of-13 in two.
Eaton needs a breakthrough game. If UNC elects to focus all of their defensive efforts on Graves, Eaton could find herself with a number of open looks inside, in the mid-range, and from deep.
- Use the Weber State games as motivation
Graves received criticism from the Weber State broadcast crew for her comments made about SUU’s first victory against the Wildcats. The T-Bird star was quoted as saying she was “really angry” that they didn’t execute the way they wanted to and that Weber “shouldn’t have been that close” to them.
In all reality, she’s not wrong.
Going into the Weber State series, SUU was ahead of the Wildcats in every single statistical category. Yet the Wildcats fought to the final buzzer in that series, overcoming a number of double-digit T-Bird leads.
In the two games, the T-Birds fouled a combined 42 times, shot a dismal 25% from long range, turned the ball over a combined 41 times, and lost the overall rebounding battle, something that to that point had never happened before this season in a series.
At the end of the day, a win is a win, but the T-Birds need to improve if they want to beat UNC after letting a winless team get, in Graves words, “that close” to beating them.
When, Where, How?
SUU and Northern Colorado face off in game one of the two game series in Greely on Thursday, February 4 at 7 p.m. The game can be viewed online on PlutoTv channel 1055. Saturday’s match-up in Greely will tip off at 12 p.m.
Story by: Kelton Jacobsen
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication