For the second consecutive game, Southern Utah University men’s basketball outlasted the University of Montana by the margin of a single free throw, securing the season sweep of the Griz 75-74.
As time wound down on the T-Birds’ final possession, junior Tevian Jones hoisted a 3-pointer. It bounced hard off the iron toward 6’1” guard Nick Fleming, who rose above Montana’s Josh Vazquez to grab the ball for a putback attempt, getting fouled in the process.
Fleming calmly sank the first free-throw and intentionally missed the second. Montana’s final full court heave landed well beyond the basket, giving SUU their third consecutive win over the Griz dating back to last season.
“As a program, you build from some lows, then you start to hope to win, then you want to win,” head coach Todd Simon told reporters postgame. “Now, I think we’re at the stage in our program where we’re expecting to win. That’s what great teams do, they believe. We never really felt rattled.”
Jones (6-16 FG) and senior guard Dre Marin (6-12 FG) led the way offensively for the T-Birds, scoring 19 points each. For Jones, 15 of those points came in the second half.
Southern Utah led for much of the first half, despite some struggles from the field. SUU shot 11-29 (38%) in the first period, compared to 13-23 (57%) for the Griz.
Senior center Ivan Madunic buoyed the T-Birds to an early advantage with six points off of post up plays in the early going. With twelve minutes left, John Knight found Harrison Butler for an open 3-pointer, giving the T-Birds a nine point lead.
The teams exchanged blows as the first half wore on, with Montana chipping away at the lead through bruising post play by junior forward Kyle Owens, who led all scorers with 21 points in this game.
Junior guard Cameron Parker led Montana on a 13-0 burst over the final minutes of the first half, giving the Griz a 36-31 lead at the break. Parker finished with 19 points (3-3 3PFG) and six assists off the bench for the Griz. The Thunderbirds missed their final seven shots of the first half, failing to score after the 5:33 mark.
“In a very polite way, I told them I didn’t believe that was Thunderbird basketball there for a while,” Simon said of his halftime talk with his team. “We weren’t getting stops. We were looking a step slow on that side of the floor during that stretch.
Montana extended their lead to 13 points before SUU responded with a 12-0 run of their own in the opening minutes of the second half to pull themselves within a point with 14 minutes remaining.
Owens drilled a three to slow SUU’s momentum, and Montana rebuilt their lead to double digits before SUU charged back behind some hot 3-point shooting from Marin and Jones.
With 40 seconds left in the game, Fleming curled around a screen into the high post, where he found Marin for an open jump shot to give the Thunderbirds their first lead since the 1:18 mark of the first half. Marin added two free throws after a defensive stop on the next possession to put SUU ahead 74-71 with 20 seconds left.
Vazquez, who finished the game with just six points, drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game up in what looked like a carbon copy of the shot he made to tie things up when the two teams met on Thursday night.
Fleming secured the rebound and was fouled by Vazquez with 1.6 seconds remaining.
“I’m so proud of Nick,” Simon said. “We know how important he is… He’s been a very good learner and has an extremely bright future here.”
Fleming finished the game with four points, two assists and two steals, all Division I career highs for the junior transfer from Highland Community College.
Junior forward Maizen Fausett scored 16 points and added nine rebounds to help secure the victory.
Southern Utah joins California State University, Sacramento at the top of the Big Sky conference with a 2-0 record in conference play.
“It feels so good,” Knight said postgame. “We just put the Big Sky on notice. Those were two big statement games, I think they were second in the preseason rankings, and we beat them two times. That’s hard to do.”
The Thunderbirds will continue their season Wednesday, Dec. 9, when they head to Orem to take on Utah Valley University.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication