Kamira Sanders followed her heart and followed the Gleasons to Seattle U. It's been a perfect match, and Sanders is on a hot streak as the 15th-seeded Redhawks play No. 2 seed Oregon.
Shortly after Kamira Sanders sank two pivotal late free throws to help clinch a Western Athletic Conference women’s tournament title and an NCAA tournament berth for Seattle U, the Redhawks’ sophomore guard sat at the postgame news conference smiling bashfully as her head coach sang her praises.
“I think she was one of the key reasons why we won this championship,” said Seattle U coach Suzy Barcomb. “You have Kamira reappearing after an amazing freshman campaign, playing at a different level, and now elevating her level again.”
Sanders, the WAC tournament MVP, and WAC freshman of the year in 2016-17, has started 30 games for Seattle U this year, averaging 11.9 points.
But she truly hit her stride in postseason play, leading Seattle U in scoring in its WAC semifinal (19 points) and final (20 points) wins.
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The 15th-seeded Redhawks (18-14) need Sanders to find that postseason form again Friday in Eugene, Ore., against No. 2 seed Oregon (30-4), in the first NCAA tournament game in Seattle U history.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Sanders said. “I’m super excited.”
It’s even more surreal because less than two years ago, Sanders had signed to play for Division II Humboldt State and Seattle U wasn’t even on her radar.
The Redhawks’ spunky 5-foot-7 guard from Redding, Calif. was a prolific playmaker at Enterprise High School where she made varsity as a freshman and scored more than 2,000 points over an illustrious four-year career.
Colleges came calling early, but Humboldt State always stood out for Sanders because of two factors: She is a self-described “homebody” who wanted to go to college close to home, and she felt a powerful connection with Humboldt State coaches, Joddie and Skip Gleason.
Redding is about three hours east of Humboldt State’s campus in Arcata. The Gleasons heard about Sanders when she was in middle school and started watching her closely when she began her freshman year of high school.
“She’s extremely athletic and can score in bunches with her athleticism,” said Joddie Gleason. “She uses her defense to initiate her offense and she just had this prolific scoring ability at the high school level.
“I thought she was a Division I player and that we wouldn’t be able to get her at Humboldt State because Humboldt State is Division II.”
As expected, the Division I schools came calling, with UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii among Sanders’ most ardent suitors.
But they couldn’t touch Sanders’ relationship with the Gleasons.
“They just knew me,” Sanders said. “They knew the type of person I was, and the style I liked to play, and they had so much belief in me.”
Two days after Barcomb was hired at Seattle U in April 2016, Sanders signed to play at Humboldt State.
Less than a month later, the Gleasons called. They’d gotten a job offer from Barcomb in Seattle, they said.
“They knew that I had committed for them,” Sanders said. “But I was excited for them. I was like, ‘You guys should take it.’ Just like this is a good opportunity for me, that’s a good opportunity for you guys. I can stick it out, and maybe I’ll still like it.”
Sanders waited to see who replaced the Gleasons at Humboldt State, but started questioning her college decision after she tried repeatedly to get in touch with the new coaching staff and could never get anyone to call her back.
“There just wasn’t that connection, and I didn’t want to start off like that,” Sanders said.
In the end, Humboldt State granted Sanders a release from her scholarship. It was almost July by then, and time was running out for Sanders to find a college to start school at that fall.
With limited options, she considered playing at NAIA Simpson University in Redding, where she had a longstanding invitation from the basketball coach to join his team.
“At that point, with Humboldt not working out, I was like, ‘Man, I just really want to play basketball,’” Sanders said. “I love basketball, and I’m not stopping because nobody wants me.”
But when the Gleasons heard that Sanders wasn’t going to Humboldt, they swooped in and asked her to visit Seattle U.
“At first I was like, ‘All the way in Seattle? A whole two states away?’ But I came here, and the coaching staff was great and I liked the campus,” Sanders said. “It’s a really good size and they obviously have a really supportive community.
“And with the Gleasons, I had a really good connection with them from day one, so I know they’ll always be there for me too.”
Sanders signed with the Redhawks and earned a starting job as a freshman. She took the WAC by surprise last season, impressing opponents with her ability to get to the basket.
This year, the WAC wised up.
“I’m pretty sure every team, on their scouting report (of me) put ‘slasher,’ ” Sanders said. “I didn’t shoot (last year) and I was pretty much straight to the basket.”
“Everybody was collapsing on her,” Joddie Gleason said. “People started taking it away, so she realized that she needed to develop something else.”
So Sanders honed her shooting this year and worked on analyzing defenses.
“I’m shooting and reading defenses better,” Sanders said. “So now, if they sag, I can shoot. And I’m using a screen instead of just refusing it. And if they’re going under the screen, I’ll be able to read it and have the jump shot.”
Sanders’ expanded skillset helped the Redhawks to a WAC title, and now they’re hoping to be the Cinderella of this year’s NCAA women’s field.
A 15-seed has never beaten a two-seed in the women’s NCAA tournament, and the odds are stacked against the Redhawks because they’ll have to slay the high-scoring Ducks in front of a hostile crowd at Matt Knight Arena.
In a year of firsts for the Redhawks, can they pull off another one?