SUU women’s basketball: 2021-22 season in review

Looking back on the 2021-22 season for Southern Utah University’s women’s basketball team, a lot was accomplished in the program’s final year in the Big Sky Conference. Most importantly, a young core of returning players has emerged for Head Coach Tracy Sanders as she prepares to take on the Western Athletic Conference next season. 

The Thunderbirds finished 18-12 overall and 14-6 in the Big Sky — their second-highest win total since joining the conference. That record helped them secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament but they ultimately fell to the University of Idaho in the quarterfinals. 

Southern Utah finished the season leading the conference in rebounds per game, with 41.5, and tied for the lead in blocks per game with 4.77. The team also finished second in points per game with 70.6.

Credit is due to Sanders, the coaching staff and the players for persevering through a lot of adversity this season. When last season ended, forwards Pyper Thornberry and Kinsley Barrington were expected to be large parts of this season’s team. Just weeks into the season however, neither player was on the roster anymore. On top of that, guard Aishah Anis proved to be a key bench-player for SUU but she suffered a season-ending injury just weeks before the Christmas break.

Resilience is something Coach Sanders preached all year with good reason. The roster changes forced multiple players, including center Lizzy Williamson, to step into larger roles, moves that benefited the Thunderbirds in the long run. 

In all, the season proved that Southern Utah is a program to be taken seriously as they move to the WAC. This team has an outstanding group of players that should be together for a few more years. 

Freshmen recap 

This year’s roster featured only four freshmen: Anis, guard Amoret Maxwell, walk-on guard Kayla Clark and forward Emily Kulstad. Anis was one of the first players off the bench for the Thunderbirds and looked to be a promising three-point shooter before her injury. She shot 35.7% across her 10 games played. 

Maxwell appeared in only two games this season, notching 15 total minutes. In her time, she made three of six total three-point attempts. She came into the season hoping to be a sharpshooter that the team desperately needed but ultimately failed to see much of the court. 

Clark appeared in 13 games this season but was more of a reserve that came in during blowouts. In her limited action, she made four of her seven shots on the year. She did some damage from the free throw line however, going 11-12. 

Kulstad only appeared once this season, in an early-season matchup against the University of California, Irvine. In her two minutes of action, her lone recorded stat was a single rebound. 

Anis showed the most promise out of the four as Sanders trusted her with 13 minutes per game. If her injury does not impact her ability to play next season, she should be in the mix to be a primary ball-handler off the bench. 

Biggest surprise

No doubt the biggest surprise was the emergence of Williamson. As a redshirt freshman in 2020-21, she lost playing time to Barrington and Thornberry and appeared for a total of just 27 minutes over 10 games. With those two out of the picture, Williamson was forced to start, where she made an immediate impact. 

The center from Adelaide, Australia made excellent use of her 6’5” frame as she went on to be the sixth-leading rebounder in the Big Sky. According to herhoopstats.com, her 7.6 rebounds per game puts her in the 95 percentile of all NCAA women’s basketball players. Williamson also finished in the 93 percentile for field goal percentage,with 93%, and the 98 percentile for blocks per game with 1.6. Additionally, she notched the team’s highest-scoring and rebounding outputs of the season when she scored 35 points to go along with her 23 rebounds against SAGU American Indian College. 

Aside from her own stats, she improved Southern Utah’s offense as a whole. Her use in the pick-and-roll game allowed slashers like Cherita Daugherty and Dayla Ballena to get clean lanes to the basket. At other times, she would cause the defense to collapse in the paint which led to an easy pass to a sharpshooter like Sam Johnston for three. 

It is no coincidence that this team hit its stride once Williamson was inserted into the starting lineup. 

Biggest disappointment

While not a single player, the biggest disappointment this season was the inconsistency and lack of options regarding three-point shooting this season. In 30 total games, the Thunderbirds only had two players that took over 90 three-point attempts: Johnston and Natalia Otkhmezuri. Johnston made 34% of her shots and Otkhmezuri made 38% of hers. 

Even Johnston and Otkhmezuri were streaky from deep. At their best, each of them proved to be elite-level shooters. Look no further than the game against Northern Arizona University when Otkhmezuri exploded for 25 points, shooting 6-9 from deep. Johnston added another 17 points on 5-9 from behind the line. 

However, in six of those 30 games, Johnston failed to score from three on a combined 23 attempts. Otkhmezuri had six such games as well, going 0-13 total. Across the team’s 12 total losses, Johnston went 17-60, 28%, which is well below her season average. Otkhmezuri only played in eight of the losses and she went 6-25, 24%, which is not even close to her average. 

The losses are not to blame on these two players in any way. Shooters have their off nights which is normal. Rather, the actual issue is that the team did not have other players to step up and shoot from deep when it was needed.

Ballena, Daugherty and junior guard Maddie Eaton each had moments when they hit from three but it was not something they did consistently. Especially when the two other shooters are off the court, this team needed one or two more legitimate threats from behind the line. 

This became painfully apparent in the final game of the season against Idaho. For reasons unknown, the team shot only six total three-pointers all game which included only two attempts in the first half. 

Season MVP

Part of what made this season so special for the SUU women’s basketball team was that there was not one player that really stood out above the rest. It was a team effort through and through. If one player were to be selected as being the “Most Valuable” though, that would have to be the team’s only senior, Darri Dotson. 

The forward had been a part of the program for quite some time, coming in as a freshman from Panguitch, Utah all the way back in the 2015-16 season. She played for two seasons before serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and returned for her junior year in 2019. She utilized her “COVID year” from the NCAA which allowed her to return for the 2021-22 season — her fifth at SUU. 

The Thunderbirds were definitely glad she came back as she led the team with 11 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. 86 of her 230 rebounds came on the offensive glass, showing that Dotson was willing to be aggressive and fight for second-chance points. Her veteran presence and leadership on and off the court were no doubt one of the factors that led to this team performing as well as it did.

Outlook for next season

Finishing third in the conference is no small feat but it is easy to believe the best is yet to come for this squad. Part of that is because moving to the WAC will be a huge benefit as the top teams in the WAC are not as talented as the top teams in the Big Sky. 

This is also a squad that has not reached its full potential yet. Johnston graduated from high school a year early so, even after her second season in college, she is still getting used to the physicality at the next level. 

Ballena demonstrated incredible development towards the end of the season and looked like SUU’s next star. Explosive and twitchy, Ballena proved she can drive to the basket and score through contact while also possessing elite passing skills.

The only player that is leaving for certain is Dotson, who has exhausted her collegiate eligibility. Daugherty and Eaton are eligible to return and assume that veteran leadership role. 

As far as new players, Southern Utah has three talented incoming freshmen. Guard Emmy Clarke hails from Canberra, Australia and should be the additional shooter the Thunderbirds need. 

Another guard, Lexi Jensen, will be coming to SUU. Jensen played for Herriman High School where she was selected to First Team All-State. 

The final incoming freshman is the 6’5” post Ashley Banks of Boise, Idaho who will provide much-needed depth behind Williamson.

As it stands, the Thunderbirds could have a log-jam at guard while being relatively thin at the post positions. 

Nevertheless, fans of SUU women’s basketball should be excited because this team has the potential to be one of the top teams in the WAC next season. 

Story By: Christian Esparza
sports@suunews.net

Photos Courtesy of SUU Athletics

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