The Southern Utah University women’s basketball team will resume Big Sky conference play Thursday and Saturday against California State University at Sacramento.
The T-Birds travel to Sacramento after falling to Pac-12 opponents Arizona State University 55-44 in Tempe on Feb. 8.
According to Big Sky rules, teams must play at least 10 conference games in order to claim their rightful seed in the postseason tournament. That means the T-Birds, who currently sit in fourth place with a 3-2 record, would enter the tournament as the 11th seed unless they can get five more games in by the end of the season. There are six games left on the schedule.
No team in the conference has played fewer games than the T-Birds, so the results from these games against Sac. State will have a big influence on what seed the T-Birds claim in the conference tournament — assuming they can play enough games to qualify for their deserved seed.
Liz Graves continues to lead the way for the T-Birds on offense. Graves has the Big Sky’s highest scoring average at 16.6 PPG and is also second in field goal percentage (.513) as well as third in rebounding (8.4 rpg).
The Hornets reside in second-to-last place in the conference standings with a 1-13 Big Sky record and a 1-16 record overall.
Their lone win came at home against Eastern Washington University on Jan. 28, and since then the Hornets have lost five straight games by an average margin of 15.4 points per game.
Sac. State has had some success on the offensive end this season, posting the seventh-best points per game average in the conference at 65.9. However, the Hornets have struggled on the defensive end — giving up a league-worst 77.7 PPG and allowing opponents to shoot 45% from the field.
The Hornets are coming off a 90-67 loss to Northern Colorado University in which they allowed UNCO to score 44 points in the paint.
All but two players on Sac. State’s roster are listed as guards, and the team is built around speed and shooting.
Junior Summer Menke leads the Hornets both on offense and defense. The 5-foot-10 guard currently ranks No. 8 in the Big Sky conference with 13.9 PPG on 44.6% shooting from the field. She also leads her team in assists per game (2.4), steals per game (1.9) and rebounds per game (7.6).
Tiana Johnson may be listed as a guard/forward, but the 6-foot-2 redshirt junior plays much more in the post than on the wing. Johnson is averaging 12.7 PPG and 6.8 RPG this season while leading the team in blocks per game (0.9). She takes more 2-point field goals per game than anyone else on the team.
Sharpshooter Sarah Abney rounds out the Hornets’ attack. Abney is taking seven 3-pointers per game this season, and while her conversion rate has been low (24.5%), she can swing the momentum of a game with just a few shots.
Keys to the Game:
1. Avoid Shootouts
No team in the Big Sky conference has shot more threes per game than Sac. State has this season. The Hornets are firing up 28.7 3-pointers per game — nearly double SUU’s rate this season (16.1).
Sac. State probably doesn’t have the same athletic ability that SUU does, and head coach Bunky Harkleroad will likely try to turn these contests into a numbers game. It’s his team’s best chance to win. Trying to outmuscle or outwit the T-Birds plays directly into SUU’s hands.
But if the Hornets can knock down enough threes, maybe they can stick around for long enough to surprise SUU and steal a win.
SUU sports the second best figure for 3-point percentage allowed this season at 30%, and the Hornets, despite their impressive volume, are only converting on 29% of their long distance attempts. If those trends continue, the T-Birds should be set up well to slow Sac. State’s offense down.
Harkleroad may try to speed the game up in hopes of turning the game into a 3-point contest. SUU will need to dictate the tempo and run shooters off the line with hard closeouts. If they do, they should be in a good position to grab two wins this weekend.
2. Dominating the Offensive Glass
Southern Utah ranks first in the Big Sky in offensive rebounds per game with 13.8. Sac. State, on the other hand, ranks ninth in defensive rebounds per game with 23.9.
Johnson and freshman Neysa Munguia are the only players who stand above 6 feet on Sac. State’s roster that actually see consistent playing time. In comparison, SUU has eight players listed at 6-foot or taller, and the T-Birds should use their height to their advantage in Sacramento.
SUU has the best average rebounding margin in the conference (8.4) while Sac. State has the worst (-9.4). Expect the T-Birds to crash the boards and capitalize on their own misses often.
3. Trading 3’s for FT’s
While Sac. State’s offense is built around the 3-pointer, SUU’s offense places much more emphasis on getting to the basket and the free-throw line.
The T-Birds are shooting 80% from the line as a team this season and an average of 21.6 attempts at the line per contest, both Big Sky highs.
SUU hasn’t shot the ball particularly well from three this season (30%), but they’ve made up for it at the charity stripe. If Sac. State drains a few long bombs and gets some kind of lead, it could be tempting for the T-Birds to try and go shot for shot with the Hornets from behind the arc.
Sac. State is allowing opponents to shoot just 32% from deep, the fifth best mark in the conference, so avoiding that temptation will be key for SUU. Instead of settling for long jumpers, the T-Birds need to attack the basket over and over again through Cherita Daugherty, Darri Frandsen and Graves.
There have only been five instances of a Big Sky team making 29 or more free throws in a game this season. SUU claimed wins in two of those games: a Jan. 21 win over Weber State University and a Dec. 12 win over Grand Canyon University.
The T-Birds are at their best when they’re getting to the line often, and sticking to that plan should give them an advantage over Sac. State.
Where, When, How to Watch
Thursday’s game is set to tip off at 6:00 p.m. and Saturday’s game will tip off at 1:00 p.m. Both games can be streamed live on PlutoTV channel 1052.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz