For the first time without fans, the Southern Utah University men’s basketball defended the America First Events Center with a 95-47 win Saturday in the team’s home opener against the University of St. Katherine.
The Thunderbirds never trailed their NAIA opponents and cruised to victory behind 59% shooting from the field.
A few families of SUU players cheered the T-Birds on from socially distanced spots throughout the arena, but for the most part the only noise in the stadium was the artificial crowd noise piped in via the stadium’s speakers.
“It’s kind of goofy in the way things are so different from what you’re used to, but it’s good,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said. “The game’s the game. Once the ball goes up, I’m pretty tunnel-visioned, and I think our players are too. You’re within those 94 feet, and it’s just kind of about you and the other team.”
Junior Tevian Jones led the way offensively for the Thunderbirds with 22 points on 9-10 FG, including 4-4 3PFG. Jones only played 20 minutes in the contest.
John Knight III, Marquis Moore, Courtese Cooper, Nick Fleming, Dee Barnes and Jones all knelt during the playing of the national anthem before the game. Knight explained that he had discussed his decision to kneel with Simon beforehand, and the coach was supportive.
“I’m not trying to disrespect the veterans or anything, it’s about racial injustice, social injustice and equality for everybody,” Knight said in the postgame press conference. “That’s what I stand for, and that’s what I wanted to get across.”
Knight said he and Moore had planned to kneel and that the others joined in when the anthem started.
“We’re blessed to be in a community that’s spectacular, welcoming, loving,” Simon said. “We have police forces locally that are in the community, that are one of us, they care about one another but that’s not how it is everywhere… As a show of solidarity, I support them. These are young men with a lot of love in their heart. If that’s something they feel strongly about, then I’m all the way behind them.”
Simon said he encouraged his players to be open and ready to have conversations about racial injustice with fans.
“What’s fun about our group is that our players hang out in our office everyday,” Simon said. “So we educate and say, ‘Here are the pros and cons. There’s a price and a sacrifice you make on every decision you do, and you have to be willing to accept that. Not everyone is going to love what you’re doing.’”
SUU jumped out to a 10-0 lead to start the contest, with Knight throwing down an emphatic dunk to set the tone early for the T-Birds.
the virtual crowd went wild for this one we won’t lie 👀 pic.twitter.com/Y0NWvC1cW8
— SUU Men’s Basketball (@SUUBasketball) November 28, 2020
“Our bench is always into the game,” senior guard Dre Marin said postgame. “We try to have fun and give our teammates energy that they need, especially when there’s no one in the crowd. It can be hard to get going, but we did a great job of giving ourselves energy.”
The Thunderbirds cruised to a 45-26 lead at halftime behind 65% shooting from the field. They carried the momentum into the break and outscored the Firebirds 52-21 in the second period.
Knight flashed his improved range by shooting 2 for 4 from behind the arc in the second half. The senior guard was fouled hard on a dunk attempt by USK’s D’Angelo Fields, sparking a bit of a conflict between the teams but tempers were reined in quickly.
“I’ve matured since last year,” Knight said. “Last year, I probably would have got a [technical foul] after that, but this year I’ve been working on my anger on the court, and I use it as motivation to get to the next play.”
Knight finished with 12 points and six assists. Marin added 15 points on 6-9 FG. Juniors Harrison Butler and Maizen Fausett also finished in double figures with 11 and 10 respectively.
Newcomers Kingsley Box, Martel Williams and Fleming played their first minutes in a T-Bird uniform Saturday night.
“This is a game where we talk about working on our process,” Simon said. “The newcomers are integrating into the system, and I thought we saw great progress in how we do things from game one to game two. We shared the ball well, did the simple things and did what we were supposed to do.”
Simon’s squad tips off Big Sky conference play on Thursday when SUU hosts the University of Montana at the America First Events Center at 7:00 p.m. on PlutoTV.
Story and photo by: Connor Sanders