Full Steam Ahead: The resurgence of Sac State women’s basketball


Ayaana Williams

Isnelle Natabou (left), Summer Menke (middle), Jazmin Carrasco (right) gathering up after a foul during the Causeway Classic at the Golden 1 Center on Nov. 26, 2021. The Hornets suffered their biggest loss of the season 75-46 against UC Davis.

John Cabales

After winning just 11 games over the past two seasons under former head coach Bunky Harkleroad, Sacramento State’s current women’s basketball coach Mark Campbell was brought in.

Campbell said he wanted to change the culture of the program when he came into the position.. 

Currently sitting at 13-10 this season, it appears that he has done just that, as his tenure as coach has seen the Hornets’ greatest win increase in Sac State history. 

It hasn’t been a perfect season by any means for the Hornets in their 2022 campaign, however. From the jump, the team struggled to stop anyone on defense, often looking like they were content with trying to outshoot the opposition. 

They also had the bulk of their scoring early on coming from graduate guard Lianna Tillman, senior Summer Menke and sophomore center Isnelle Natabou. With struggles on defense and a top-heavy offense that only saw major scoring contributions coming from three players, the Hornets opened the season dropping a handful of games that they could have won. 

The team did end up turning that around though, once players began to return from injury and the team decided to clamp down on defense.

“We’re a completely different team than we were at the beginning of the season,” Menke said. “We’re a unit right now and it feels good playing with everyone.”

Things are starting to change around Sac State and it all started with Campbell’s ability to see and recruit talent.

“These kids have been working really hard on our defensive rules and principles for a long time and the habits are kicking in,” Campbell said. “It’s neat when kids get rewarded for something that they’ve been working hard at.”


New Hornets

Three players in the starting lineup are playing at Sac State for the first time and are not just some of the best players on the team but the best players in the Big Sky. They also complement each other very well.

Tillman has the ability to get in the lane whenever she wants. She can pull up from mid-range off the dribble and has the ability to hit threes in big-time moments. She also has an impressive understanding of the game and seems to know where everyone is at all times. Tillman leads the Big Sky Conference in both points at 20.3 a game and assists with 6.4. 

Graduate guard Lianna Tillman shoots at the free-throw line after being fouled by Portland State at the Nest on Feb. 5, 2022. Tillman scored 27 points in the 73-62 win over Portland State. (John Cabales)

Sophomore center Isnelle Natabou stands at 6 feet 5 inches and is a beast in the paint and the perfect player for Tillman to drop the ball off to as they run the pick and roll. Natabou is the conference leader in rebounds at 12.2 per game and third in scoring at 14.5. She also leads the conference in double-doubles. 

Freshman guard Katie Peneueta has proven to be the “Swiss army knife” the Hornets needed. Peneueta is a sniper from the three-point line and can effectively guard multiple positions, while sometimes having to play center depending on the lineup. Katie leads the Big Sky in three-point percentage at 53.4% and is shooting 51.6% overall. 


Tale of two halves

In addition to being without players who have since become key rotation pieces –  Peneueta and junior guard Jordan Olivares – at the start of the season, the Hornets were inconsistent on the defensive end, being unable to switch well and leaving opposing players open for easy shots.

Sac State started off the season at 4-9 with no wins in the Big Sky.

After a game at home against Northern Arizona, the Hornetsseemed to have had enough. They went on to improve that part of their game as a team.

“We struggle a lot on defense,” said Peneueta after the NAU game. “We’ve been talking about all of our mistakes and all of our problems but we need to fix them already, we’re already a long way into the season.”

Ever since that loss, the team has won nine of their last 10 games, with their only loss coming against Weber State in overtime.

“These last 10 games, we’ve shown a lot of growth and playing together as a team,” said senior guard Jazmin Carrasco. “I believe we’re the best team in the Big Sky.”

RELATED: Tillman leads Sac State women’s basketball to win over Northern Colorado


They found their groove

Even though the team seemed pretty beat after the loss to Northern Arizona, they would not roll over, instead, they took what their coaches told them and applied it. 

Starting with the Portland State game where they would lock up the Vikings and the big three of Tillman, Natabou and Menke would dominate on offense. Coming home and playing against Eastern Washington they had a different kind of swag about them. The energy around the team was different like they knew that they were going to go on this run.

Senior guard Jazmin Carrasco calling a play at the top of the key against Eastern Washington at the Nest Jan. 20, 2022. Sac State would secure their second Big Sky win of the season after a 59-49 win over Eastern Washington (John Cabales)

And so they did, at times looking pretty dominant including their revenge game against NAU. Even being down and their backs against the ropes like they were in their last game against Southern Utah. Down halfway through the fourth quarter they seemed calm and unworried. Tillman would score 10 quick consecutive points to get them back in it and as a team, they closed it out.  


The rest of the season

The Hornets will get the chance to get their revenge against Weber State on Thursday as they return home after two consecutive away games.

With six games left in the season and four being at the Nest, the Hornets will have the opportunity to give the program their first winning season since the 2014-2015 season.



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