Some things to know about Notre Dame women's opening NCAA opponent — Southern Utah

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Southern Utah guard Cherita Daugherty (32) cheers with a piece of the net after playing in an NCAA college basketball game against California Baptist in the championship of the Western Athletic Conference tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. Daugherty was named MVP and Southern Utah won 82-73. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)

Four things to know about 14th-seeded Southern Utah (23-9) before the Thunderbirds’ visit to Notre Dame to face the third-seeded Irish (25-5) in Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament women’s basketball game:

Southern Utah making its first-ever NCAA Tourney appearance

The Thunderbirds, who were also Western Athletic Conference regular-season champs at 16-2, claimed an automatic bid by winning the WAC Tournament title in Las Vegas during their inaugural year in the league.

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An off-balance, last-second, 25-foot shot by Cherita Daugherty lifted Southern over New Mexico State 62-61 in the quarterfinals.

The Thunderbirds added a 64-51 semifinal win over Grand Canyon, then secured the crown with an 82-73 victory over Cal Baptist on Saturday.

Daugherty, a 5-foot-10 grad guard, scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the final on her way to being named Most Outstanding Player of the tourney.

Located in Cedar City, about 50 miles from both the Arizona and Nevada borders, Southern Utah joined the WAC after spending the previous 10 years in the Big Sky Conference.

Southern Utah heating up at right time

The Thunderbirds won its last six games in a row and 19 of its last 21, but labored early in the season while facing premier opponents.

Three of those early losses were lopsided ones, all on the road, all against teams that are currently ranked.

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No. 16 Gonzaga won 91-38, No. 20 Colorado 78-48 and No. 8 Utah 90-56.

Thunderbirds have balance

Southern features five players with double-digit averages in scoring or rebounding.

Daugherty leads the way at 15.3 points to go with 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 156-of-187 at the line for 83.4%.

Tomekia Whitman, a 5-10 senior transfer from Idaho State, is at 12.0 points, and Daylani Ballena, a 5-8 junior guard, 11.3 points and 3.9 assists.

Southern Utah center Megan Jensen, center, protects the ball from California Baptist guard Brittany Klaman, left, and forward Grace Schmidt during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Western Athletic Conference tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ronda Churchill)

Megan Jensen, a 6-3 senior center who arrived this season from Utah Valley, is at 11.3 points and 5.8 boards, while 6-5 Australian senior center Lizzy Williamson averages 9.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

Additionally, 6-0 junior guard Samantha Johnston is at 8.0 points and 65-of-192 on 3-pointers for 33.9%.

Reversal of fortunes for Southern program

Fifth-year Southern coach Tracy Sanders has spun Thunderbird fortunes in fast fashion.

Sanders went 8-23 in her first season aboard, but that was after Southern went 5-25, 7-23 and 3-27 over the three years preceding her arrival.

Since then, her teams have gone 18-12, 11-9 (the pandemic-shortened season) and 18-12 in front of this winter’s 23-9.

As a player, Sanders helped lead another team, Saint Mary’s College of Moraga, Calif., to its first-ever NCAA Tourney appearance, in 1999.