Looking back at the historic season of SUU women’s basketball

In their inaugural season of Western Athletic Conference play, the Southern Utah University women’s basketball team made their appearance known instantly. Although they had their ups and downs in the 2022-23 season, head coach Tracy Sanders was able to lead the Thunderbirds to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. 

Sanders led the Thunderbirds to a 23-win season, which is tied for the most victories in a year for SUU and earned her WAC Coach of the Year honors. The Thunderbirds won their first conference tournament title with a 16-2 record in WAC play on top of their regular season championship. 

After an amazing tenure at SUU, many thought that Sanders would be heading to a bigger school, but she inked a five-year extension that makes her the head coach until the end of the 2027-28 season.

The experienced starting unit

Southern Utah’s historic season goes without question, but it would not be possible without the experience that SUU’s coaching staff had at hand. The reason they were able to rely on these women was because of the crucial minutes they played years prior. 

Defensive Player of the Year: SUU led the conference in rebounds with an average of 41.6 per game, which was headed by junior center Lizzy Williamson’s 10 boards per game. Williamson hauled in 329 total rebounds this year, which places her first in program history for total rebounds in a season. She also led the Thunderbirds in blocks with a total of 77 to position her second in the record book. This season Williamson earned:

— WAC Defensive Player of the Year

— All-WAC Second Team honors

— WAC All-Defensive Team honors

Most Valuable Player: Graduate guard Cherita Daugherty averaged 15.1 points per game and amassed 499 total points, which helped her achieve 1000-points in her career as a Thunderbird. That point total earned her sixth on the list for points in a season and placed her right above assistant coach Hailey Mandelko. Daugherty was one of the best free throw shooters in the conference, and her 83.2% earned her ninth in the SUU record book. After a historic final year as a Thunderbird, Daugherty earned:

— WAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player

— All-WAC First Team honors

— WAC All-Tournament Team honors

Most improved player: Center Megan Jensen upped her level of play as a Thunderbird from her junior year at Utah Valley University. As a Wolverine, she averaged 6.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and shot 53.7% from the field. The chemistry that Williamson and she were able to create in such a short period of time definitely helped increase her production. With both players likely returning next year, fans can expect the centers to make even more plays for each other in the paint. 

Jensen gave SUU some experience in the WAC after transferring from UVU for her senior season. She averaged 11.3 points per game and shot a team-high 56.1% from the field. She also hauled in 5.8 rebounds and eliminated nearly one shot per game. Jensen earned: 

— WAC All-Tournament Team honors

Facilitating the floor: With an average of 3.8 assists per game, junior guard Daylani Ballena finished seventh in the WAC and was the conductor of the Thunderbird offense all season. She scored 11.1 points per game and shot a team-high 39.2% from beyond the arc. Ballena’s percentage from three-point land tied her with Teresa Smith for second all-time in a season. 

Always ready: Guards Tomekia Whitman and Samantha Johnston both played valuable minutes in the starting lineup this year. In her junior season, Johnston filled in for the injured Whitman and played with the next woman up mentality. Johnston was second on the team for three-point percentage at 34% and nearly doubled her assists from the year before with an average of 2.2 per game. 

Biggest surprise

Comeback player of the year: No one really expects an injury to occur, but unfortunately, Whitman had to endure one this season. After missing 12 games, she worked her way back onto the court and gave SUU a spark off the bench. On the season, she averaged 11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and one assist per game. 

During a seven-game span that led up to the Thunderbirds’ matchup against the University of Notre Dame, Whitman averaged 17.4 points and seven rebounds and converted on 36% of her three-point attempts.  

It might not have been the season Whitman expected but, in her first year as a Thunderbird, she earned: 

— Sixth Woman of the Year

— Newcomer of the Year

— All-WAC Second Team honors

— WAC All-Newcomer Team honors

Biggest disappointment 

One thing that coach Sanders talked about all year was that the team needed to play a full forty minutes. This was true for a majority of their games this season, as they pulled out multiple fourth-quarter comebacks. 

Fans witnessed it during the NCAA Tournament when SUU fell quickly in the first quarter against Notre Dame but kept pace with the Fighting Irish the rest of the game. The Thunderbirds never gave up in any game, which is why they were able to make it so far this season. If anything, this would be the only disappointment from the SUU women’s basketball team. 

It is really difficult to knock a team that made it to the NCAA Tournament, especially when it is the first time the women’s program has made it there and brought a lot of positive light to SUU and Cedar City.

Freshman spotlight

Southern Utah had three freshmen on the roster this year. Guard Lexi Jensen appeared in four games but was out for the season due to an injury. To keep a year of eligibility, SUU had Jensen redshirt for the 2022-23 season. Emmy Clarke is a guard that played in seven games for the Thunderbirds, but she sat the rest of the season as a redshirt.

Leading all freshmen was center Ashley Banks. She played in 24 games and showed a more aggressive style of play on the offensive end. Her best outing was against Benedictine University Mesa, where she scored 19 points and hauled nine rebounds. 

A look into next season

Banks will see more minutes next season with the departure of Bryar Tronnier, and her emergence will make the transition easier for coach Sanders. 

Big news for SUU was senior Tomekia Whitman returning for another season. She will become the primary option for the Thunderbirds in the scoring department and will be able to fill the void of Daugherty. 

The Thunderbirds are set to have two new signees join the team for their upcoming season. Charli Kay is a guard from Smithton, Tasmania, where she has represented her country at nationals for the last five years. During the U20 Nationals in 2021, she averaged 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Kay will add much-needed depth to the guard position for SUU. 

Forward Ava Uhrich will add another player to coach Sanders’ post rotation. Before transferring to Pinewood High School for her senior year, Uhrich averaged 13.8 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals per game. She has won multiple athlete of the week awards during her prep basketball career and played for the Fever Basketball AAU Club. 

Sanders and her staff have been able to put SUU on the map for mid-major women’s basketball. Fans can expect more of the same for the upcoming season.


Story by Chevy Blackburn


Photos courtesy of Anden Garfield