Season Preview: After historic turnaround last season, women’s basketball looks to take next step

Hornets look to enter upper echelon of Big Sky in year two under Mark Campbell


Dylan McNeill

Senior guard Kahlaijah Dean drives off a screen by sophomore Katie Peneueta in practice on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022 at The Nest at Sacramento State. Dean transferred from Oakland University after totaling a thousand points in her time as a Golden Grizzly before joining Sac State this season.

Dylan McNeill

March 2021 wasn’t all that long ago, but in that time, Sacramento State women’s basketball team has become a contender.

Sac State ended the 2020-21 season at 3-22, including a woeful 2-18 record in Big Sky play. Changes had to be made.

Athletic Director Mark Orr hired former Oregon assistant Mark Campbell in April of 2021 to help renovate the program. 

Much like Orr’s other recent hires, Campbell was a perfect fit in the ever-changing puzzle of college athletics. 

In Campbell’s first season at Sac State the team more than quadrupled their win total from the previous year, going 14-16 and 10-10 in conference. 

Campbell brought in guard Lianna Tillman to run point and 6’5” center Isnelle Natabou to dominate in the post to go along with veteran guard Summer Menke. 

Tillman took home conference MVP as the Hornets quickly went from basement dwellers to ceiling raisers in one year before running out of steam,dropping three games straight to end their season.

“It’s only years difference but it makes a difference,” Campbell said, “Lianna and Summer were amazing players that had great years and tremendous seasons, so we don’t replace them. We have to create a new identity and everyone has to figure out new roles.”

As the team is on the horizon for year two of the Campbell era, Sac State will have to succeed with new faces. Both Tillman and Menke have graduated; having 31 points-per-game departing is tough, but Campbell and the Hornets have worked to restock their hive. 

The Hornets are looking for another big season from Natabou, the Czech Republic native, after averaging 15 points with 11 boards as a freshman — good for the All-Big Sky Conference Second Team. At her best Natabou is a dominant force on both ends of the court.

“Against the same schools, I am [a] different player, and I love the reflection,” Natobou said. “Last year I was scared for no reason… everything was so fast, but this season I feel like everything slowed down.”

It’s not just Sac State who envisions Natabou having a stellar season, as she was selected as the ESPN Preseason Big Sky Player of the Year as well as 2023 Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award Preseason Watch List.

“Ain’t no way! Of course I was glad, I was happy but obviously it’s an honor,” Natabou said about the news of the awards. “I’m going to work very hard to deserve that.”

Alongside her is fellow sophomore, the 6’2” sniper Katie Peneueta who shot 46% from three on 5.5 attempts per game as a freshman.

“Three starters that know what we’re trying to do on both ends of the court, and they provided great leadership,” Campbell said. “They’ve really helped new players transition.” 

Others are taking notice of the Hornets rise, being picked to finish 5th in the Preseason Coaches’ and Media Polls after finishing 7th last year and dead last the year before. 

As far as newcomers go, be on the lookout for senior transfer Kahlaijah Dean

Dean played her first four collegiate years at Oakland University averaging 14 points per game and totaling over 1,000 career points in her time as a Golden Grizzly.

She could help initiate the Hornet offense in a similar way that Tillman did last season.

“This bond and chemistry that I formed with my teammates has been like no other and I just know we got it this year,” Dean said. “We have a goal and we’re going to try our best to achieve it.”

The other fresh face in the Hornets starting lineup will be senior guard transfer Kaylin Randhawa, who averaged 12 points and five rebounds for Utah State last season.

Randhawa provides Sac State with another 6’2” athlete with shooting touch, setting the 7th highest mark in Utah State history at the free-throw line with 84.4% last season. 

The 6’3” Minnesota transfer Erin Hedman figures to help Sac State in the frontcourt as the junior forward gives the Hornets more length.

The former ESPN four-star recruit will help give the Hornets more depth throughout their rotation.

Sac State has hired two former top assistants in Campbell and men’s coach David Patrick and repainted The Nest in efforts to make the cozy confines more modern.

While last year may have been a rebound for the program, this season looks to be the come-up.

The Hornets kick off the 2022-23 season Saturday at home as they host UC Irvine at The Nest Saturday 1 p.m. The game will be available for streaming on ESPN+ here.

“It’s just game one of thirty,” Campbell said. “We’ll see how we look tomorrow and then continue to get back to work, and we got another game on Monday.”