Women’s basketball to welcome former head coach

Southern Utah University women’s basketball is preparing for a fifth home game in a row after winning the last four. The University of Colorado Boulder Buffaloes will come to Cedar City on Tuesday, Dec. 7 in a match that will mark the return of former SUU head coach JR Payne. 

Payne joined SUU back in 2009 for her first job as a head coach where they went 69-86 overall in five seasons. Losing record aside, Payne led SUU to a record 23 wins in 2013-14, a season which ultimately resulted in a Big Sky regular season championship. 

Current Thunderbird Assistant Coach Hailey Mandelko was a player on that championship team and earned a Big Sky All-Conference First Team selection that season. 

After SUU, Payne made a two-year stop at Santa Clara University before joining Colorado in 2018. Payne has gone 80-75 to date with the Buffaloes who are currently 8-0 this season. 

A look at the opponent

Senior forward Mya Hollinghsed currently leads the Buffaloes in scoring with nearly 14 points per game. Junior center Quay Miller is second on the team in scoring with nine points per game coming off of the bench. As a whole though, the team shoots efficiently as they are currently making 45% of their shots and averaging 68 points per game. 

Last time out

The Thunderbirds are coming off of a thrilling 87-65 victory over the University of Idaho, their first win against the Vandals since 1996. Senior guard Cherita Daugherty scored a career-high 26 points as she continued her impressive stretch of play. Breakout 6-foot-5-inch center Lizzy Williamson pulled down 14 rebounds and is ranked top-50 in the country and first in the conference in rebounds per game. 

Keys to victory
  • Embrace the small ball

For most of Saturday’s victory over Idaho, SUU played with three guards and two post players on the court giving up a noticeable size disadvantage. The strategy worked well for SUU as this spaced the floor out and opened up three-point shooting for the likes of Daugherty, Dayla Ballena, Natalia Otkhmezuri and Sam Johnston. The Thunderbirds finished the game shooting 52% from the floor and 52.9% from three. 

  • Defend the perimeter

Forward Beyonce Bea led the Vandals with 24 points in the paint on Saturday which is bound to happen with a talented post player against a team like SUU that plays with a small lineup. The key is that the Thunderbirds need to limit the damage opposing teams do outside the paint. Idaho went on a hot streak in the third quarter but ultimately ended the night just 6-27 from three thanks to great perimeter defense from Johnston, Ballena and Daugherty. Constant pressure around the perimeter leads to not only missed shots but turnovers as well. 

  • Take care of the lead 

The final score may not show it, but the Thunderbirds’ last two victories have been nail-biters. Against both Eastern Washington University and Idaho, the Thunderbirds jumped out to an early lead only for the opponent to come within five or less points near the end of the third quarter. While SUU would ultimately come out on top in both games, this is not an ideal path to victory. It seems like opposing teams going on a run can shock these Thunderbirds, and they need to be prepared to slow the game down and protect a lead. If SUU can get ahead early, playing at home will also undoubtedly play a factor. 

Tipoff against the Buffaloes is set for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at the America First Event Center. The game can also be streamed on ESPN+ as the Thunderbirds take on their former coach. 

Article By: Christian Esparza


Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics