Southern Utah (23-9) used defense and rebounding to take a 71-56 win over Colorado State (25-8) Thursday night in the program’s first appearance at the WNIT. The Thunderbirds posted a 45-25 advantage on the glass and held the Rams 16 points below their scoring average for the season as well as six percent below their usual shooting percentage.
“We wanted to make sure we contested every single shot and truly boxed out on every defensive possession,” stated SUU head coach JR Pane. “We knew that rebounding would probably be the most important factor in the outcome of the game. As soon as we knew we were playing Colorado State we have been talking about rebounding, and I thought our team really bought into that tonight.”
Southern Utah’s first two baskets came from behind the 3-point line as Hailey Mandelko started the game with a three from the corner and Ashleigh Munns knocked one down from the top of the arc. The Rams countered with a balanced offensive attack as their first three baskets all came from different players.
Elin Gustavsson put CSU ahead with its first triple, but the T-Birds came back with six straight, capped by a jumper from Mandelko, that put them in front 12-9 after five minutes of play.
Colorado State evened things up at 14-14 with a 3-pointer from AJ Newton, but Maylinn Smith matched it on the other end to put the Thunderbirds back up by three. The two sides went back-and-forth from there until four more points from Smith sparked a quick 6-2 run to set the SUU advantage at 25-22 in the closing minutes of the period.
Late scores from Lori Parkinson and Desiree Jackson helped Southern Utah hold on to a 30-28 edge going into the break. The Rams recorded a 44.4 percent to 35.5 percent shooting advantage early on, but SUU doubled up them on the glass, 24-12. Smith and Mandelko each had seven first half points to lead the T-Birds, with Sam Martin and Newton turning in the same number for the home team.
Southern Utah started the second period with two quick steals and two quick baskets from Mandelko and Moreland. The SUU center added a pair of free throws to make it a 6-0 run to stretch the margin to 36-28.
Ellen Nystrom hit a jumper for the Rams’ first points of the half, but layups from Jackson and Mandelko helped increase the lead into the double figures at 45-34 with eleven-and-a-half minutes remaining.
Colorado State made just two of its first 13 attempts of the second half before five consecutive points by Gritt Ryder narrowed the deficit to 47-41. Another 3-pointer for Newton had the Rams back within four inside the seven-minute mark.
A couple of trips to the foul line and a fast break layup by Marquelle Funk pushed the difference back to nine at 58-49. The Thunderbirds added to the cushion by going 15-16 on free throw attempts over the final six minutes to outscore their opponents by a count of 21-10 and come out on top by a final margin of 71-56.
“I think we were growing in our confidence down the stretch. The fact that we were really defending helps your confidence, when you feel like you can get stops,” explained Payne. “Being able to get to the free throw line became our focus.”
Southern Utah shot just under 40 percent from the field while the Rams finished with a mark of 35 percent. The T-Birds also went 24-28 at the foul line and outscored CSU in the paint by a count of 30-16. SUU turned 14 offensive rebounds into 19 second chance points and grabbed ten steals.
Mandelko led the Thunderbirds with 19 points, Smith finished with 11 and Jackson went for 11 points and 10 rebounds for her first career double-double. Newton paced the Rams with 17.
“At this point in the season its do-or-die so to be able to win and live to fight another day, to be able to celebrate with these guys and play another game is all that we’re working for,” commented Payne.
Southern Utah advances to the second round of the WNIT and will face Colorado this Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Coverage of T-Bird basketball is available online at suutbirds.com.