Sac State women’s basketball guard bets on herself and it pays off

Tillman becomes first conference MVP for Sac State women’s basketball


John Cabales

Lianna Tillman showcasing 333 Club Feb 15, 2022, a brand she made to inspire others. The meaning of 333 is to wait for your time and not give up on yourself, something Tillman lives by and led her to being Big Sky MVP.

John Cabales

Sitting in the transfer portal for two months unsure of where her next destination would be, Lianna Tillman knew she wanted to make a difference wherever she went; and what a difference she has made. 

Tillman, a 5 foot 9 graduate guard from Stockton has not only helped Sacramento State women’s basketball have the biggest turnaround in program history, going from three wins to 14, but has also had the best season of her college career.

Tillman averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game, leading the Big Sky Conference in both categories. This resulted in her receiving Big Sky MVP honors; something no player in women’s basketball at Sac State has ever been able to do. 

Way before Tillman was the MVP, she was sitting in her baby stroller watching her older brother Joseph and sister Alexus play basketball. 

Tillman’s father Ronald Tillman said he loves the game of basketball and had dreams of playing in the NBA until he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). He poured his love for the game into helping his children develop their skills in basketball. 

According to Tillman, as soon as she was able to walk and run she had a basketball in her hands and wanted to play like her older sister.

“Lianna was about three when she started playing every day,” Ronald Tillman said. “I could hear the ball bouncing and knew she was falling in love with the feeling of playing basketball.”

When Tillman turned five she finally got the opportunity to play and was already skilled, according to her father. Once he saw that she wasn’t double dribbling and traveling like the other kids he knew she would be special.

With her mother and father coaching her and her siblings, Tillman got to practice with her sister and several other girls six years older than her.

“My IQ grew and it was fun for me instead of being, like, a hassle, so I kind of just fell in love with it,” Tillman said.

Ronald Tillman said that one year Lianna played in a parks and rec league but he had to take her off the court because the other team was elbowing her in the face and making her bleed. 

“I thought she was going to quit but she went back the next game and they did it again,” Ronald Tillman said. “She’s as tough as they come.”

When she got to high school, Tillman had the opportunity to go to St. Mary’s – one of the top schools in the city – but she chose to go to Lincoln where she would get the opportunity to beat St. Mary’s. She did just that in her senior year, marking the first time Lincoln had won against them in almost two decades. 

It was also an opportunity to team up with her best friend Zaria Hendricks and form a duo.

 Tillman also played Amateur Athletic Union basketball for the Cal Stars where she was able to be seen by more colleges. She also got the opportunity to play in the Nike National.

Lianna Tillman when she played for the Cal Stars AAU team. Playing on the team gave Tillman the opportunity to play against future WNBA players. (Photo courtesy of: Lianna Tillman)

“It was good to play against the Sabrinas and girls that are in the WNBA now,” Tillman said. “It was a different competition for me and I wasn’t at the level yet.”

Tillman adapted to that level of play when she got to college. For her, it was between UC Davis and the University of the Pacific.

She chose to stay home in Stockton and play for the UOP Tigers. She said it was important to her to spend time with her family and be able to see her niece and nephew as much as possible. 

“When I had my official visit the players were nice and I felt the vibe and style of play were good for me,” Tillman said.

Tillman didn’t play in a lot of games her freshman year and when she did it was just for a couple of minutes. That did not deter her, however, as she made the most out of the time she did get and at practice.

She also had to get used to not just being an offensive player and hone in on the defensive side. Tillman said she eventually got used to the pace of the college game.

“My sophomore year I was ready to go, we had a good team that year and we were rolling,” Tillman said.

That year, the team went 19-13 and Lianna averaged 7.1 points and 1.8 rebounds in 20 minutes of play.

During her time at UOP, she averaged 2.5 assists and 6.3 points per game. After her senior season, Tillman bet on herself and entered the transfer portal. 

Head coach Mark Campbell put Tillman in a situation where she could play to her strengths and be comfortable on the court. She led the nation in pick and rolls where she could pull up, go all the way to the basket, or dump off the ball for her teammates. 

“It has been a great opportunity for me to grow and learn and also not being too far away from home so my family can come to the games and stuff,” Tillman said.

Tillman had the best season of her career and helped Campbell start turning the program around along with being the first Hornet in school history to win the Big Sky MVP award.

According to Campbell, Tillman has been locked in and ready to take advantage of her opportunity since day one.

“She’s just consistent with her work ethic, she comes in and gets her shots and reps which is what a veteran’s supposed to do,” Campbell said.

Tillman’s teammate Katie Peneueta said that having Tillman on the team has been crucial toward helping her learn and improve, and that her play often makes her role on the team easier.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better point guard,” Peneueta said. “She can do whatever we ask her to do and she constantly does that.”

Off the court, Tillman has her own clothing brand called 333 Club. She said 333 is an “angel number” that  instructs a person to “wait your turn and just keep grinding.” 

Tillman said she forms her demeanor around that angel number and that it sums up her college career.

“I started off not playing and I don’t think I averaged over 10 points at Pacific,” Tillman said. “I could have quit after my fourth year but decided to keep going and I made it work.”

Now that the season is over, Tillman said she looks forward to going pro and is ready to play, whether it is in the WNBA or overseas.

“Our baby loves to play basketball so we just ask God to keep her healthy and bless her as he has,” Ronald Tillman said. “If she has the opportunity to play in the WNBA or any kind of professional basketball I feel like she will be ready to go after it 110%.”