Elijah Saunders is thriving in his role at the right time

Saunders attempting a three-point shot in the regular season finale against Boise State. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT Sports

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Elijah Saunders celebrates with the Viejas Arena crowd. (Justin Mojica/EVT)

At the beginning of the 2023-24 season, many predicted Elijah Saunders would start the year on the bench, with newcomer Reese Waters starting alongside the four returning seniors.

That turned out not to be the case.

Darrion Trammell missed the opening game at Viejas Arena against Cal State Fullerton with a shoulder injury, and Saunders was inserted into the starting five next to Jaedon LeDee in the frontcourt.

Head coach Brian Dutcher would go on to keep that starting five intact for the first seven games of the season. In fact, it wasn’t until the first game in February when Dutcher replaced Saunders with Jay Pal in the starting five against Utah State. Senior Micah Parrish also came off the bench in that win over Utah State for the one and only time this season. Parrish and Saunders combined to score 22 points on 50% shooting in the win.

From that point on, Saunders has played a reserve role in every game and has improved every single time he stepped out there on the floor. Since moving to the bench, the sophomore scored in double figures three times and turned into one of the Aztecs top three-point shooters.

“Saunders is the one making them right now,” Dutcher said postgame against Boise State when asked who he would like to see step up from deep. “Someone has to step up and make an open shot.”

Saunders hit three triples in a game four times and then hit a career-high four three-pointers in the loss at UNLV on March 3. Saunders led SDSU in scoring with 14 points in the defeat. The sophomore is coming off a 3 of 4 game from deep in the loss against Boise State. He’s starting to get hot from downtown.

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“We put (Saunders) in a position where his man has to help on LeDee on a roll,” Dutcher said when asked if he draws up looks for Saunders. “(Saunders) lifts behind and usually he is open on those kind of plays where they have to help on (LeDee). If they don’t help on (LeDee) then it’s a basket. They have to choose where they want to help. So, yeah we run stuff for (Saunders) to get open looks, especially when he makes them.”

What really benefits Saunders is his confidence. He seldom hesitates when attempting a shot from beyond the arc. Saunders has a smooth jumper that starts with his lower half all the way to the follow-through. He uses his whole body to shoot a jumper and that really benefits him when opponents are attempting to block it. He has drained at least one triple in the last seven games and nine in his last three.

Saunders shot 4-9 from deep against UNLV last time out, and with the Aztecs set to face them again in the quarterfinals, they may need him to repeat his performance. In the two games against UNLV this season, Saunders is shooting 50% from the field, 45% from beyond the arc, and is averaging 9.5 points per game.

The tournament games will be close and down to the wire. Saunders’ ability to drain open looks will be important for the Aztecs’ success. SDSU has an uphill battle if they want to repeat as champions, but the sophomore has a chance to be a massive part of it.

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