SUU Women’s Basketball Conference Tournament Preview

Snubbed. Overlooked. Ignored.

These are some of the words that could define the season for the Southern Utah University women’s basketball team. 

The T-Birds entered the season with zero starters returning from last year. Madelyn Eaton and Darri Frandsen were the only players who played significant minutes in 2019-20. 

Then came Liz Graves, a transfer from Weber State University and sister to Eaton. Then Cherita Daugherty, a junior college transfer from Lower Columbia Community College. They teamed up with a stellar freshman class consisting of Daylani Ballena, Kinsley Barrington and Pyper Thornberry.

A three-headed monster formed with Graves, Daugherty and Frandsen establishing themselves as leaders early on. The trio combined for 40.5 PPG, 23.2 RPG and a field-goal average of 46% in the regular season.

SUU beat Grand Canyon University in their first statement win of the season, but outside of the SUU media, no one seemed to notice. They throttled Dixie State University by 36 and Graves was named Big Sky Conference Player of the Week, but the fame dissipated due to COVID-19 cancellations. 

The T-Birds reeled off a five-game win streak beating the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Weber State University and the University of Northern Colorado. They pounded Northern Arizona University by 17 while shooting 65% from the field, and still, the Big Sky didn’t seem worried.

They claimed the Big Sky’s best regular season offense, scoring 72.5 PPG, and were the best rebounding team in the conference.

The team finished 11-8 and 6-5 in conference, good for the five seed and a first round bye in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. 

This team, consisting of just a few returners and a handful of newcomers, was picked to finish eighth in the pre-season Big Sky Coaches and Media polls. 

Still, in a season that many would consider a surprise, the T-Birds received little love in the annual all-conference awards that were released Sunday.

Make no mistake, this SUU team can be incredibly frightening. They score, they rebound, they run. They play smart, they play together, and they’re incredibly resilient. Those are attributes they’re going to need to take with them to the Big Sky Conference Tournament.

First Up

SUU’s first match-up will be in the second round against the University of Northern Colorado and Big Sky Conference MVP Alisha Davis. 

In what seemed to be SUU’s most complete game of the season, the T-Birds defeated the Bears 70-63 in their only match-up this season back in February. 

Daugherty finished with 19 points and six rebounds while shooting 8-9 from the field. Satini put up 13 and went 5-of-6 from the floor, while Frandsen and Eaton each put up 12. 

Davis struggled against the T-Birds and their collapsing defense. She went 6-of-12 from the field while turning the ball over five times and committing four fouls.

A balanced attack from the T-Birds ultimately gave SUU the edge, as they outscored the Bears in the fourth quarter 23-13. 

Graves finished the night with just six points and five rebounds.

The rematch between UNC and SUU is intriguing for a few reasons.

            1. It’s highly unlikely Graves has that poor of a performance again.

Graves scored in single digits just three times this season. She scored six in the blowout against Dixie State, six against Northern Colorado, and then one point just days later against Arizona State University. 

Graves had outbursts of 34 (against Brigham Young University), 33 (against UTRGV) and scored over twenty points five times this season. She is also tied with Davis for the most games over 15 points (14 times) despite playing five fewer games. 

She also finished the season with two straight double-doubles. Graves is in the zone. She’s unlikely to be limited to just six points again.

               2. SUU’s series versus UNC ended unexpectedly and in an odd way.

The Thunderbirds were on a five game win streak as they geared up for game two of the series against UNC on Feb. 6. 

Rumors have circulated as to why the second game was canceled. Whatever the case was, the cancelation was quick and sudden for both squads. Media and athletic department staff were all set and ready to go in the Bank of Colorado Arena. 

The SUU women’s basketball twitter account reported the game was postponed, whereas the UNC PlutoTV commentator kept telling viewers who were tuning in the game was canceled. 

Finally, the Bears tweeted at 12:34 p.m., 34 minutes after the scheduled gametime, that the game was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.

The quick and sudden decision to cancel the game seemed fishy at the time, as all players undergo daily COVID-19 tests, and all players on SUU’s and UNC’s rosters were available for their next scheduled games. 

The cancellation prompted the T-Birds to schedule a quick match-up against Arizona State just two days later.

The contest against ASU was an ugly one to watch, and neither team seemed particularly interested in playing each other. The T-Birds ended up falling in Tempe, and lost quite a bit of momentum, as they were unable to re-establish the same rhythm they had during their five-game win streak.

              3. Alisha Davis vs. Liz Graves

Liz Graves averaged more points per game and more rebounds per game than Alisha Davis throughout the regular season. 

Anyone who had the chance to watch Graves this season knew she was special — easily the best player on the T-Birds’ roster and maybe the best in the conference. She has range, handles, post moves, rebounding skills and defensive instincts to spare. 

Nonetheless, Davis came away with the Big Sky Player of the Year award, and Graves was confusingly left off the first team entirely. 

If this season has taught SUU fans one thing, it’s that Graves plays with a chip on her shoulder.

Against her former schools, BYU and Weber State, Graves scored 34, 21, and 18 points in each game, respectively. 

Against Portland State University on March 3, PSU mounted a late game run. Graves put the team on her back and scored seven points while holding PSU’s leading scorer, Desirae Hansen, scoreless in the fourth quarter. 

At the end of the day, it’s all personal to Graves, and this Player of the Year award is no different. T-Bird fans should expect her to play with a little extra edge against UNC.

Where, When, How?

SUU and UNC will face off in round 2 of the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday, March 9, at 2 p.m. The game can be viewed on PlutoTV channel 1055.

Should SUU overcome the Bears, they will play the next day against the winner of Portland State and Idaho State at 6 p.m.

Story by: Kelton Jacobsen
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletic Department Strategic Communication