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Rancho Cordova Independent

The resurgence of the Sac State women's basketball program

Feb 22, 2022 12:00AM ● By Story and photos by Shaun Holkko, sports editor

The Sacramento State women's basketball team huddles during a timeout in the second quarter of a game against Idaho State on Saturday, Feb. 19 at the Nest in Sacramento.

The resurgence of the Sac State women's basketball program [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Hornets have improved a record 10-games since last season

The Sacramento State women’s basketball team is making history in the 2021-22 season under first-year head coach Mark Campbell.

The Hornets (13-12, 9-7 Big Sky Conference) have already improved 10-games from last season, the best season-to-season turnaround in program history, with four regular season games and the Big Sky Tournament to be played.

Campbell brought his “blueprint of chasing excellence” with him from The University of Oregon.

“Every day you gotta be locked in, as a team, as a staff,” Campbell said. “It’s a simple formula but it’s hard to follow. It’s hard to bring it every single day, day after day, for seven months. For college basketball, it’s a grind from August all the way to March.

“This group is learning that. They’ve done an incredible job of giving us everything they have. You’ve seen the byproduct of all the hard work with what we’ve been able to do over the last month and a half. So, I would say that’s probably the biggest thing that I gotta bring from my time at Oregon, and at Oregon State, we built a Final Four program there too.

While he was an assistant at Oregon, Campbell coached the No. 1, 2 and 8 overall picks in the 2020 WNBA Draft, Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard.

Campbell ranks second in win improvement among NCAA Division I coaches who are in their first season at a new school. He is second in the nation behind LSU’s three-time national championship coach Kim Mulkey, who has currently led the Tigers to 14 more wins than a season ago.

Sac State only won three games last season (3-22) under Bunky Harkleroad, the final straw after six consecutive losing seasons. 

Guard Summer Menke is in her fourth year at Sac State and is one of three players on the team who played under Harkleroad for the last three seasons.

“(Campbell) raised the bar completely,” Menke said of Campbell. “Our toughness, what he expects from us, everything. Our offense is so much better. He brought a completely brand-new program here. We’re still working out the kinks, it’s the first year. I’m excited to see what it’s going to look like in a couple years.”

After spending seven seasons at Oregon and six as the associate head coach, Campbell moved to California’s Capitol with loads of experience and some familiar faces. Joining Campbell in Sacramento as assistant coaches were Xavier “Xavi” Lopez and Minyon Moore, both having spent time at Oregon as an assistant and player, respectively. Lopez’s wife and Oregon alumna, Megan Murphy Lopez, also joined the Sac State program as director of operations, the position she previously held at Oregon.

Campbell and his staff took over a Sac State program that has not had a winning season since 2015, when the team went 18-16 and lost in the third round of the Women’s NIT Tournament.

The Hornets began this season 4-9 overall and 0-4 in the Big Sky before rattling off wins in 9 out of 10 games. The biggest win of the nine came Jan. 27 at first-place Idaho State winning by 16 and in Pocatello, Idaho for only the second time in school history.

“It takes time, we’re still growing,” Campbell said. “You can’t just throw a group of people together and expect them to instantly become cohesive. The outside world thinks it’s that simple but it’s not.

“You have to develop a chemistry. A defensive cohesiveness, offensive cohesiveness. That takes time. We won 9 out of 10 but it’s still year one where we’re just creating an identity on both ends of the court. We’re fighting and competing and we’re learning a lot.”

Leading the charge for the Hornets has been graduate transfer Lianna Tillman, who spent her first four collegiate seasons at the University of the Pacific.

“I think his competitive spirit matched mine especially and that’s why I came here,” Tillman said of Campbell. “I feel like he turned this team around. Just being more competitive and striving for a championship rather than just getting through the season is the biggest thing.”

The 5’9 guard currently leads the Big Sky and ranks 14th in the nation in scoring with 20.5 points per game. Tillman is also one of only two players in women’s college basketball that is averaging 18 points and 6 assists per game, alongside University of Iowa phenom Caitlin Clark.

Sac State returned home to the Nest for a two-game homestand last week taking on penultimate Weber State and Idaho State. The Hornets lost both games falling to the Wildcats 62-52 on Thursday, snapping their four-game winning streak, and against the Bengals 67-56 on Saturday.

This weekend against Idaho State, sophomore Isnelle Natabou had 11 points and 8 rebounds, snapping her streak of 10 consecutive games with a double-double. The 6’5 center has 15 double-doubles on the season.

Despite the two-game setback, Sac State still has a lot to play for. The Hornets have four regular season games remaining on their schedule before the Big Sky Tournament begins in Boise, Idaho on March 7. The winner of the tournament receives an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, something Sac State has yet to achieve.

“The ultimate goal from the beginning is that we’re playing our best basketball in Boise at the conference tournament,” Campbell said. “I have no doubt if we can stay healthy our last four games, when we go into Boise, we’re going to be a very dangerous team.”