The Thunderbirds pulled away from visiting Northern Colorado for a final score of 63-48 to secure a share of the Big Sky regular season championship Saturday night. The Thunderbirds won their last five games of the year to match North Dakota for the best record in the conference and accumulated the highest win total in program history.
“It’s hard to put into words, I’m just so proud of all of our players,” stated SUU head coach JR Payne. “These girls have so much going in their lives with family, schools and injuries. For them to achieve this, I just couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Senior center Carli Moreland scored six points in the game, but her fifth brought the crowd to their feet as it represented the 1,000th of her career at SUU, making her just the 10th women’s basketball player in school history reach the mark.
“It was a struggle for me tonight — not what I was hoping for personal performance-wise, but I ended up getting it somehow, one way or another,” commented Moreland. “We started out the game really well, but we kind of seemed to fizzle out a little bit at the end of the first half. Really coming out at the beginning of the second half was huge for us. It really got our momentum going and gave us more confidence.”
Moreland's score came on a free throw after she earned a trip to the line with just 17 seconds remaining. The game was well in-hand before then, however, as SUU opened the second half with an 18-3 run to open up a 49-30 advantage after leading by just four points at the break.
The visitors hung around in the first half by shooting 50 percent from the field and got seven points from center Stephanie Lee in the first 20 minutes. The Big Sky’s second-leading scorer would finish the night with that same total, well below her season average of nearly 20 points a game.
Junior guard Hailey Mandelko did the bulk of the scoring for the Thunderbirds, putting up a game-high 20 points while going 4-8 from 3-point territory. Sophomore Lori Parkinson added 10 more for SUU.; Maylinn Smith contributed six points with an assist; fellow senior Marissa Robbins had three rebounds and a steal and senior guard Andrea Jones recorded five points and a pair of assists.
“It’s really indescribable, it feels so good. I’m just so proud of everybody,” stated Jones. “It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of. It’s great to get a championship. My team is great and I give all the credit to them.”
The stats were essentially even for both sides as the visitors shot 41.3 percent from the field to Southern Utah’s mark of 41.2 percent, each team made six 3-pointers and pulled down a total of 33 rebounds. The difference for the Thunderbirds came at the foul line where they went 15-24 while Northern Colorado was just 4-10.
Southern Utah now prepares to return to the Big Sky Tournament, for a second straight season, where it will hold the number two seed. The Thunderbirds are scheduled to open against Sacramento State next Thursday, March 13, at 1:30 p.m. (MT) Coverage of SUU basketball is available online at suutbirds.com.