By Marvin Luu
It does not take long for Raelyn Cheung-Sutton to realize that the basketball is coming her way.
Once it ricochets off the rim, she bolts forward, lunges up and stretches out her hands to secure it. A second goes off the clock in San Louis Obispo, ticking to 4:10 as the Cal Poly Mustangs have already mustered up a steady eight-point lead over UC Irvine.
The Anteaters have been amidst a harrowing season in which they have dropped 22 games. They are currently 2-12 on the road and are tie with Cal State Fullerton for last place in Big West Conference. Despite all of this, Cheung-Sutton stays poised and is only concerned with the current situation.
With the ball in her hands, the majority of her teammates have already taken off, rapidly heading towards the other end of the floor. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to their movements; all they know is that if they fill in the lanes, the ball will find them—as it already has on 140 different occasions this season.
Leading the Big West Conference and ranked 28th overall in the nation with 5.6 assists a night, senior point guard Cheung-Sutton has undisputedly become the prolific floor general for the UC Irvine women’s basketball team. Doing so however, proved to be quite a steep mountain to climb.
Four years ago, the San Francisco native did not even have a secure spot on any given collegiate roster. Despite being considered the best player out of George Washington High, Cheung Sutton was overlooked by many recruitment scouts.
“I was pretty confident ‘cause like I knew I could play basketball…I just didn’t go to [a] school or [play on] programs that allowed me to get seen,” Cheung-Sutton said. “But I had played against other girls that I knew I was better than and they had gotten looks because they were on better teams.”
Of course, this did not stop Cheung-Sutton from continuing to pursue the game that she loved so much.
“Basketball is my sport,” Cheung Sutton said. “Regardless of where I was going to go…I knew I was going to walk on.”
During the summer of her senior year, Cheung-Sutton worked out with some close friends who were also facing the same adversities, all of whom had one common goal in mind: make it on a college roster.
The group began working out at Olympic Club, a athletic club based in the bay area. While the camp opened at nine, Cheung Sutton and her friends got in work early.
“We would get in at like 6 [or] 7 and just get shots up [and] shots up, [then] skill work [and] skill work…we were all focused on making it on [our] teams…that was our goal.”
One of Chueng-Sutton’s friends would go on to make it onto the Cal Poly roster–the same team that would make it to the NCAA tournament just two years ago. One of her other friends walked on at Stanford and also made it onto the team.
Eventually, Cheung-Sutton did create enough buzz to attract the attention of representatives from UCI, who granted her the opportunity to walk on. But this was only the beginning of her long journey.
Stepping into unfamiliar territory, Cheung-Sutton knew that she had a lot more to prove to her teammates and coaching staff.
“All I knew was what I could do and I knew that…it was kind of my audition. Any practice I was in I would have to show what I had.”
This would prove to be a rather difficult task for Cheung-Sutton who was entering the program at a time where there were not many opportunities at the point guard position. Behind guards Jennifer Tsurumoto and Madison McKinney, Cheung-Sutton spent the majority of her time on the sidelines as the third string point guard.
“I pretty much sat out for two years,” Cheung Sutton said of her first seasons as an Anteater. “I played behind [Jennifer Tsurumoto] at the time and she was a good player. I just looked more at her game…she was different from me…she was more of a score first type of player. I know she was battling through injuries and she would just fight and I really liked that about her game…seeing her create her own was helpful.”
Tsurumoto’s time with UCI was nothing short of spectacular. Transferring from Santa Rosa College where she was named Big 8 MVP and first-team all-state, Tsurumoto became the second best scorer for the Anteaters with 10.1 points while dishing out 2.9 assists a night. The 5’6’’ guard also dropped a career high 27 points to lead the ‘Eaters to victory against Hawai’i—the first time that the team has defeated the Rainbow Wahine in three years.
With Tsurumoto’s stellar play, Cheung Sutton saw only nine games of action in her first year, managing to record just two points, two rebounds, and a steal for the entirety of the season. Not much would change in Cheung-Sutton’s sophomore campaign as she averaged 0.5 points and 0.6 rebounds in 16 games.
“My job, at the time, was to just be a role player, do my job in practice, be a scout player, cheer on the bench, and just stuff like that.”
Where the numbers were lacking, Cheung-Sutton made up during practice and on her own time, looking for some encouragement from assistant coach Annie Garrett along the way.
“Being one of the better players before and coming on and not getting any minutes [and] not doing anything…it was tough for sure. So I’d go to [Annie] and be like, ‘Hey Annie what could I do better? What do I need to do? What do I need to work on?’ and on my own time I would work and get shots up.”
Cheung-Sutton’s methodical persistence would eventually pay off as the 5’4’’ guard would go on to earn a scholarship prior to the start of her junior season. More importantly, the year would prove to be a breakout, as Cheung-Sutton would lapse on consistent minutes, starting 29 of the 32 games she competed in.
In the same season, Cheung-Sutton put up career high numbers, dropping 20 points in a contest against Cal Poly and nine dimes on two occasions. She also averaged 4.8 assists per game, a feat that even Tsurumoto had never pulled off as an Anteater.
As it has been from the very start, Cheung-Sutton credits her preparation and consistent approach to the game for her success.
“I’m an on the court leader and as a point guard that is something you have to do regardless of whether you’re a freshman or a senior,” Cheung-Sutton said. “Every game I go into, I’m going to play as best as I can. I’m not going to put out any less effort any game I go into…it’s always going to be 100 percent…so I think whatever comes out of it…comes out of it.”
Now, Cheung-Sutton is sitting in the same shoes that Tsurumoto once had: about to engage the fast break. She briefly surveys the floor before taking her first dribble. Usually this would be the time where she would raise her hand or shout to call out a play, but she establishes that she has numbers on the other end.
She puts the ball down with her right hand and extends it over to her left, swaying and alternating her dribble from left to right, right to left, crossing over midcourt and left to right, moving straight toward the center of the three-point line. Three seconds tick the clock down to 4:07. Cheung-Sutton has teammate Andrea Ritter on her left flank and Tayla Jackson hovering above her defender in the paint, both of whom appear to be decent options. This is where Cheung-Sutton has been known to do all her career: look for the right opportunity to dish the ball.
“As I have said before…I’ve always been a pass-first point guard and I mean that still hasn’t changed…I’m still looking to set people up and that’s just what I see…I’m not really looking at the basket, I’m always looking at my periphery.”
However, when Cheung-Sutton takes crosses over to her left, she realizes that her defender has not stepped forward—there is far too much space between them. It is apparent that this is the best option.
Cheung Sutton uses the final dribble to size herself up. She locks her feet and bends her knees, ready to let the ball fly, as she has been encouraged to do on countless occasions.
While Cheung-Sutton has always prided herself as a pass-first point guard, she is a more than capable scorer, which is an asset that she regrets not showcasing much more of in the past.
“[Back in high school,] I should have actually been much more of a scorer. I mean I’m not saying that I’m great or whatever, but as one of the better players I should have been putting up more numbers,” Cheung-Sutton said. “But being a sister was what I was good at and what I loved to do and I just didn’t realize it at the time. I mean, I could shoot…I just didn’t search out my own shots…so I wish I had…scored a little more.”
In her final year at UCI, Cheung-Sutton is completely self aware of her own abilities. She no longer hesitates to look out for her own shot. Her arms pull the ball up from her waist to her head. With a full extension, the ball is released; her defender throws out her hand in desperation to contest the shot. It’s too late. Cheung-Sutton back-pedals as the ball goes through the net. Swish.