Season preview: Women’s basketball

Basketball season is just around the corner for Southern Utah University. Both teams will take the court for the first time on Tuesday, Nov. 9. The women’s team will begin their season away at California State University Fullerton.

SUU women’s basketball finished as the fifth seed in the Big Sky Conference and secured a first round bye in the conference playoffs in the 2020-21. They went on to lose in the quarterfinals against Northern Colorado University, but the season was ultimately a success. The team had nine total newcomers, a number that is almost unheard of in the realm of college basketball. On top of that, the team struggled with multiple last-minute game cancellations due to COVID. Long story short, last year’s squad greatly outperformed expectations. 

Notable Departures 

Liz Graves, 5-10, G/F, 17 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 37.1% 3PT, 27.4 MPG

Graves was the go-to option for the Thunderbirds and one of the best players in the Big Sky last year after transferring from Weber State University. As a senior, she averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, second in the conference in both categories. Replacing her output on both ends of the floor will be a big feat for this year’s squad. 

Pyper Thornberry, 6-2, F/C, 3.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 10.5 MPG

Thornberry is choosing to focus on academics after one season with the SUU. In her lone season as a Thunderbird, Thornberry was a key bench player for the team. She was tough, gritty and aggressive on the defensive end of the floor. This year’s team will look to multiple players to step up and fill that role. 

Megan Kamps, 6-0, F, 2.6 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 7.9 MPG

Kamps was a five-year veteran at SUU, taking a redshirt freshman season after an injury. In her final season with the team, she did not see a lot of minutes on the floor due to depth at her position. Still, experienced forwards are one thing this team lacks so her presence will be missed. 

Notable Returners

The Thunderbirds are returning four out of their five starters from last year. Guard Cherita Daugherty, forward Darri Dotson, guard Maddie Eaton and guard Rita Satini all started at least 19 or more games last season. Daugherty, Dotson and Eaton each averaged at least 11 points per game in their appearances. Forward Kinsley Barrington and guard Sam Johnston look primed to step up and assume increased workloads this season as well. Both players saw limited action last season as true freshmen, but appear to be in the starting rotation along with Daugherty, Dotson and Eaton. Sophomore guard Dayla Ballena figures to be one of the first players off the bench for the T-Birds. 

Newcomers on the Roster

Aishah Anis, freshman, 5-7, G

  • Anis comes to the United States from Tasmania, she looks ready to play a role right away. She has an extremely high basketball IQ and will probably be the backup point guard. 

Amoret Maxwell, freshman, 5-11, G/F

  •  Offering good size, Maxwell figures to be in the rotation at the three-spot as a forward. 

Emily Kulstad, freshman, 6-1, F/C

  • With the amount of uncertainty at her position, it is hard to project how much playing time Kulstad will get. If one of Dotson or Williamson gets injured, she could see a lot of minutes. 

 Kayla Clark, freshman, 5-6, G

  • Clark is starting the season buried on the depth chart behind Daugherty, Anis and Satini. She will probably focus on development this season. 

Natalia Otkhmezuri, junior transfer from Casper College 5-8, G

  • Otkhemezuri is from the Republic of Georgia and is another freshman who could be playing a big role. A crafty shot creator, the Thunderbirds may look to her for help scoring on in the paint. 
The Path to Success

The biggest thing to watch for this season is who will play the role as the primary scorer. After Rebecca Cardenas graduated, Liz Graves stepped into that spot. Now that Graves has moved on, look for a more balanced team scoring approach.

“One of the things that we are most excited about as a staff is that we have a more well-rounded team scoring wise,” said Head Coach Tracy Sanders. “We have seven or eight people that are capable of double digit scoring. We are at a better place as a team.”

Still, someone is going to need to step up. The name to look out for is Daugherty. Not only did the senior shoot 37% from three-point range last season, she also showed impressive playmaking ability, leading the team with three assists per game. She is the type of player to lead more with her play than with her words, and her play does a lot of talking. 

Post Rotation

This team is incredibly deep at the guard position with a lot of experience, but the forward and center positions are more of an unknown. Right now, the starting lineup looks to feature three guards and two forwards, those forwards being Dotson and Barrington. 

Competing for the backup minutes spots are junior Bryar Tronnier and redshirt sophomore Lizzy Williamson. Both players are relatively inexperienced, averaging under four minutes per game last season. Alexa Lord, who played guard last year, moved to forward due to the lack of depth. Because of this, Sanders wants to emphasize playing to the team’s strengths. 

“We have some three-level scorers that can shoot the three, get to the basket, or pull up,” said Sanders. “We have more shooters than we have had in the past so that obviously stretches the floor out a little bit. We have a lot of versatility so I’m excited to see how it plays out.” 

Early Season Success

This season will feature some tough competition with an opening road stretch in California against the likes of Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. They will then return home to face 2021 NCAA Tournament participant Utah Valley University. Then, they’ll head to Las Vegas to play the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. It is a brutal start, but Sanders knows that her team can compete. 

“We have a group that if we are competing, then we can play with those teams,” Sanders said. “If we go in and compete every game then we are going to be in a good spot [for conference play].”

This year’s squad was recently picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky in the coaches’ poll and fourth in the media poll. Even though the Thunderbirds do not have a representative on the preseason all-conference team, it is clear that depth and scoring are going to be huge strengths for the team this season. 

The men’s team opens their season at home against Bethesda University on Tuesday, Nov. 9. For a preview of SUU’s men’s basketball, click here.

Article By: Christian Esparza                                                                                                                                                                                      

Photo Courtesy of SUU Athletics