When the 2022-23 campaign began, WAC media voters and coaches didn’t have the Southern Utah University women’s basketball team in their preseason top-5 despite finishing 2nd in the Big Sky regular season standings a year ago.
After three weeks, a lot of folks were questioning SUU’s legitimacy as a first place team in the WAC.
The narrative was that the T-Birds haven’t played the upper echelon in the WAC.
Well, on Wednesday night, the Thunderbirds did their best to put an end to that narrative.
Daylani Ballena and the T-birds hit clutch shots and free throws to earn a 63-60 win over GCU Wednesday night at GCU Arena.
With the win, the T-Birds improve to 7-0 in WAC play and 11-7 overall.
Things didn’t get off to a good start for the Thunderbirds. The T-Birds turned the ball over 10 times in the opening quarter. And GCU took advantage, leading 15-8 after one period. Olivia Lane’s jumper with 32 seconds left in the first quarter provided the Lopes with their 7-point lead after a quarter.
Southern Utah’s Samantha Johnston hit a pair of 3-pointers over a 45-second span to tie the game at 18 with 7:31 left until the half.
However, GCU had a response. Naudia Evans hit a 3-pointer to stretch the GCU lead to five with 3:07 until the half.
Johnston’s third and final 3-pointer of the half momentarily put the Thunderbirds in front 34-33 with 23 seconds left. But an Evans layup just before the half gave the Lopes a 35-34 lead at intermission.
After 10 first quarter turnovers, the T-Birds only turned it over a pair of times in the second quarter. The T-Birds also shot 48.0 percent from the field in the second quarter. They were plus-10 on the glass and allowed the Lopes to shoot 42 percent from the field.
Coming out of the half, GCU went on a 8-0 run covering 3:46 that gave them a 9-point lead at 43-34.
Tiarra Brown had two straight field goals to start the run while Lane and Collins also contributed field goals in the push.
Tomekia Whitman’s layup with 85 seconds left in the quarter cut GCU’s lead to 47-41 after 30 minutes of play.
After Alaina Harper’s lead restored an 8-point GCU lead at 53-45 with 7:00 minutes left, the T-Birds went on a 7-0 run and chopped the deficit to one.
Daylani Ballena, Lizzie Williamson, and Megan Jensen all made jumpers created by GCU turnovers in that stretch.
GCU’s final lead came with 2:43 left to play after Emma Krueger split a pair of free throws.
But, good teams find a way to win, especially on the road.
And the T-Birds did just that on Wednesday night.
Southern Utah closed the game on an 11-4 run.
Tomekia Whitman tied the game at 56 with a layup. And following a a missed jumper by Naudia Evans, Daylani Ballena hit the shot of the game.
With 44 seconds to play, finding herself open on the left wing, Ballena knocked down a 3-pointer to give the T-Birds the lead for good.
Q4 | Dayla with the three and the Thunderbirds TAKE THE LEAD ?
— SUU Women’s Basketball (@SUUWBasketball) January 26, 2023
Tomekia Whitman then stepped up and made 4 free throws in the game’s final 14 seconds to seal the win.
Ballena had 15 points and four rebounds to lead Southern Utah. Tomekia Whitman added 14 points and five rebounds in just her second WAC game of the season. Whitman was also a perfect 8-8 at the free throw line. Megan Jensen and Lizzie Williamson, who averaged a combined 22 points per game coming into the game, were held to a combined 11 points.
For GCU, Olivia Lane led the Lopes with 15 points, five rebounds and three steals. Tiarra Brown added 14 points with a pair of rebounds while Naudia Evans added 11 points, four assists and a trio of steals.
GCU falls to 14-6 overall and 6-3 in conference play. They Lopes host Abilene Christian on Saturday looking to avoid their second 3-game losing streak of the season.
Meanwhile, Southern Utah (11-7, 7-0) returns to Cedar City to host Tarleton State.