SUU Women’s Basketball 2020-21 Season in Review

What was expected to be a year of rebuilding for the Southern Utah University’s women’s basketball team after the loss of the entire 2019-20 starting five, turned into a season of competitive basketball that has many excited for this team’s future.

After watching the T-Birds struggle in their first regular season game in Orem against Utah Valley University, it looked as though the T-Birds were in for a long season. However, they rebounded with a win over William Jessup University on Dec. 9, and put together a five-game win streak between Jan. 17 and Feb. 4.

The T-Birds finished the season 11-9 while going 6-5 in conference, good for their fourth winning season in the last 11 years. They lost just twice in the America First Event Center.

In her third season at the helm, Tracy Sanders took a team that featured just four returning players and coached them to a first-round bye in the conference tournament — a feat the team had not achieved since joining the Big Sky in 2012. 

The season ultimately came to a close after a loss in the quarterfinal to the University of Northern Colorado on March 9. 

Nonetheless, the season featured highlight plays, star players and miraculous wins. It also featured the worst COVID luck in the conference, bad losses and a few head scratching decisions.

Best Game of the Season

The ladies played some excellent games this season. 

Putting up 97 points against Northern Arizona University on Feb. 27 was notable, especially considering the T-Birds were held to just 56 points two days earlier in Flagstaff.

The 28-point win over the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley on Jan. 18 was also a thrilling game to watch. SUU finished the game shooting 63% from the field and 53% from downtown. 

The 36-point shellacking of Dixie State University was impressive. The T-Birds held the Trailblazers to just 26% shooting and not a single DSU player scored in double-digits.

But, the best game of the 2020-21 season, was the one-point victory over Grand Canyon University. It was the first time that SUU fans witnessed what would become the team’s three-headed monster in Liz Graves, Darri Frandsen and Cherita Daugherty. The trio combined for 63 points and 24 rebounds in that game.

The T-Birds also shot 34 free-throws and made their final eight in a row to steal the win.

Grand Canyon was one of the best teams in the Western Athletic Conference this season. They finished the season 18-7 and lost in the WAC tournament final against California Baptist University.

Ultimately, this was the first game that demonstrated SUU’s resilience, something that would be tested through the rest of the season. 

Freshmen of the Year

SUU featured six freshmen on the roster this year: Dayla Ballena, Kinsley Barrington, Camille Carpenter, Samantha Johnston, Pyper Thornberry and Lizzie Williamson (redshirt). Of the six, only three of them, Ballena, Barrignton and Thornberry, were featured members of the rotation throughout the entirety of the season.

Thornberry played in 19 games this season and did pretty well. She shot decently from the field at 46% and disturbed a lot of opposing bigs with stellar defense. She also played some important minutes early in the season, particularly against GCU, and was big in that win. However, she was inconsistent all year and was a less-than-willing rebounder.

However, Coach Sanders seemed to place her trust in Barrington and Ballena, who became the first and second players off the bench for the T-Birds. It was clear that when these two went out with injuries, SUU’s bench desperately suffered.

Barrington fit very well into the offense Sanders ran and was a stable substitute when Graves was forced to sit with foul trouble. She shot and rebounded better than the other bigs on SUU’s bench. The ball also never seemed to stick when she was in the game and almost every shot Barrington took was a good one. 

Ballena was most effective early in the season, but her production cooled off as the season wore on. Unfortunately, injury forbade her from playing the final five games of the season. But prior to her injury, Ballena boasted the Big Sky’s best assist-to-turnover ratio for much of the season. She probably should have started more than one game, which leads into the next section.

Biggest Surprise

The season itself was surprising.

However, the biggest and most pleasant surprise this season was the emergence of Liz Graves as one of the premier players in the conference.

Coming into the season, questions abounded about how the team would replace Rebecca Cardenas. There were some who predicted Madelyn Eaton would be the go-to scoring option for the T-Birds.

In the season’s first game, that looked to be the case. Eaton seemed to be the only one who was unafraid to shoot the ball.

The only problem was she couldn’t make a thing. 

Eaton opened up the season shooting 10-of-41 throughout the first four games and, unfortunately, things didn’t improve all that much. The next four games of the season saw Eaton go 13-of-46. But, hey, props to Eaton for having that shooter’s mentality.

Graves, on the other hand, made a statement early that she was going to have a solid season. After four years as a college basketball journeyman, Graves finally found herself on a team that could showcase her talents.

Graves scored 87 points in her first four games, including a career-high 34 against BYU. She would go on to become one of the most difficult match-ups in the conference, finishing as the Big Sky’s second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. Her absence from the All-Big Sky First Team is, perhaps, the most egregious omission in recent years.

Biggest Head-Scratcher

Why did Margarita Satini start all 20 games for the T-Birds?

Satini shot just 49 times this season, 122 times less than the next closest starter, Daugherty, who shot 171 times. Of those 49 shots, Satini made just 18, good for just 36.7%. According to HerHoopStats, she turned the ball over 44.9% of the plays she was involved in, compared to assisting just 17.5% of the time.

Her player efficiency rating is in the second percentile of the NCAA. For comparison’s sake, Daugherty is in the 78th, Frandsen in the 96th, Eaton in the 47th, and Graves in the 98th. 

She averaged 2.6 points per game. Megan Kamps played 296 fewer minutes than Satini and averaged more points per game. 

Perhaps most puzzling, at the end of the season, she didn’t finish games even though she was starting them.

One could argue that Eaton’s struggles were equally concerning; a high-volume shooter who struggled with efficiency. But, what Eaton lacked in shot making, she (most of the time) made up for in playmaking and defense.

There is, however, a silver lining for Satini. 

Satini had a tremendous game back on Feb. 4 against Northern Colorado. She scored 13 points and hit a clutch 3-pointer to stifle a late Bears run. That’s the Satini the T-Birds needed in 19 other games this season, and that’s the Satini the T-Birds will need going forward. She obviously has her coaches’ trust, which bodes well for her future at SUU.

Player of the Year

There’s no debate here. 

Liz Graves.

Graves finished the season scoring 17.0 PPG and rebounding 9.3 times per game. She shot 37% from deep and 47% from the field while going 77% from the line. 

She had scoring outbursts of 34, 33, 24, and 22, finished with 9 double-doubles and had rebounding outings of 15 (twice), 13 (three times) and 12 (twice). 

She led a team, who was picked by both the Big Sky coaches and media to finish eighth in the conference, to a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

She was voted to the Big Sky Second Team and won Big Sky Player of the Week honors twice.

Looking Ahead to Next Year

There’s a lot to be excited about with this team.

There’s the solid freshmen Johnston, Thornberry, Ballena and Barrington, who lived up to their expectations and looked like one of the best recruiting class in the conference.

There’s Satini, whose role increased mightily between her freshman and sophomore seasons. She will need to take another major leap for the T-Birds to keep trending in the right direction.

There are, of course, players like Bryar Tronnier and Alexa Lord who didn’t get their shots this season, but showed solid glimpses in limited playing time.

There’s Frandsen, who wasn’t celebrated during Senior Night, which likely means she’s using her extra year of eligibility.

With the way the roster is shaped now, Daugherty is likely to be the best player on the team next season. There were times this season that she looked like the best player already.

Daugherty scored 22 points and tallied six rebounds and six assists in a win over NAU. She dropped 24 while snagging seven rebounds and dishing four assists against Weber State and she registered 18 points while grabbing nine boards and distributing four assists against the University of Idaho. 

SUU fans saw that Daugherty has the potential to take over games in multiple ways. She’s as good a distributor as there is in the conference, and she’s incredibly long and athletic on both ends of the floor. 

With the influx of new talent that are set to come to SUU next season, and with the rise of the current freshmen, Daugherty will need to be the leader the team so often lacked this season. 

In the End…

What a fun and stressful season. 

It was filled with the highest of highs with wins against GCU, Dixie State, and Northern Colorado.

It was also filled with the lowest of lows like the worst COVID-19 luck in the entire conference, injuries, and an early tournament exit.

It was filled with exciting wins and devastating losses.

It was filled with exceeded expectations and the highest scoring offense in the conference.

Overall, Tracy Sanders & Co. should consider this season a success. They fought through COVID and close games, they overcame an obscene amount of roster turnover, and they put together a winning season despite it all.

Should a similar roster return to the America First Event Center next November, SUU could make a big statement in their final season in the Big Sky conference. 

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