After winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament, the Southern Utah University women’s basketball is set to face the University of Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Thunderbirds earned the No. 14 seed and were selected to play the No. 3-ranked Fighting Irish in South Bend, Indiana.
As the host, Notre Dame will have home-court advantage, and they have only lost two games in front of their fans. The Fighting Irish boast a 25-5 overall record, while Southern Utah went 23-9 this season.
Southern Utah is going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. They had a huge week in the WAC Tournament and were featured on SportsCenter, Sports Illustrated and many other media sites for their big play abilities. None of this would be possible without the foundation that head coach Tracy Sanders and her staff have built. She took over a three-win team and turned the entire program around, which won her the WAC Coach of the Year award this season.
With a nail-biter against New Mexico State University in the quarter finals of the conference tournament, Southern Utah went on to beat Grand Canyon University and California Baptist University by sizable margins.
Graduate guard Cherita Daugherty made a miraculous shot to keep the Thunderbirds’ postseason alive and won the Most Outstanding Player award in the WAC Tournament. She leads SUU in scoring with 15.8 points per game while bringing down 5.6 rebounds and dishing out 3.5 assists.
Tomekia Whitman has been on a terror since her return to the starting lineup against Abilene Christian University on Feb. 23. The senior guard has been averaging 17.4 points and seven rebounds, and she has hit on 36% of her three-pointers over the course of seven games. The steady marksman for the Thunderbirds has been junior guard Samantha Johnston, who has made 33.9% of her nearly 200 attempts from three-point land.
Facilitating the offense is junior guard Daylani Ballena with a team-high 3.9 assists per game. She also leads the team in three-point percentage, connecting on nearly 40% of her shots from beyond the arc.
One thing Southern Utah has been known for all year is their paint presence. That is because of redshirt junior Lizzy Williamson and senior Megan Jensen dominating the paint. Williamson won WAC Defensive Player of the Year by eliminating 76 blocks this season. Per game, she is averaging just under 10 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Jensen is averaging a team-high 56.1% from the field while scoring 11.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
The Fighting Irish
Notre Dame is one of the best teams in the country and have proved it all year. Head coach Niele Ivey was named Atlantic Coast Conference 2023 Coach of the Year while four of her players earned All-ACC honors:
— Sophomore guard Olivia Miles earned All-ACC First Team honors
— Sophomore guard Sonia Citron earned All-ACC First Team honors
— Freshman guard KK Bransford earned All-ACC First Team honors
— Junior forward Maddy Westbeld earned All-ACC Second Team honors
Citron leads the Fighting Irish in scoring with 14.7 points per game and is first on the team in three-point percentage at nearly 44%. After going down with an apparent knee injury in their loss, Miles’ availability against SUU is still up in the air, which would be a big loss for Notre Dame. As the heartbeat of the Fighting Irish, she leads the team in steals, rebounds and assists.
They are an experienced team and have players that come from prestigious schools in college basketball. Graduate guard Dara Marbrey is the team’s three-point shooter and has been since transferring from Virginia Tech in 2020. Lauren Ebo is another vetted player from the University of Texas at Austin. The graduate forward is 6’4” and has 20 blocks on the season.
The Fighting Irish have length in abundance — junior forward Kylee Watson spans 6’4” and is another shot blocker off the bench. Her 28 blocks are second on the team to starting forward Maddy Westbeld. The 6’3” forward has 35 blocks on the year, and her 6.5 rebounds per game place her second on the team.
Notre Dame scores 74.8 points per game while holding their opponents to 58, placing them at No. 15 in the country for scoring margin with 16 points. The Thunderbirds’ near 70 points per game can pose a threat to the Fighting Irish defense. Their defense will open up a top fast break attack in the country.
After their ACC Tournament exit to the University of Louisville, Notre Dame will look to bounce back in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Southern Utah will travel to the Joyce Center on Friday, March 17, to face the University of Notre Dame at 1:30 p.m. MST. The game will be streamed live on ESPN2 and ESPN+. Spencer McLaughlin and Anthony Colasuono will be calling the game on KSUU-FM Thunder 91.1.
Article by: Chevy Blackburn
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics