Southern Utah University men’s basketball team muscled out a win against the University of Idaho Thursday night, 85-80. The T-Birds now sit at 3-0 in Big Sky conference play as they prepare for one more game against the Vandals in Cedar City on Saturday.
Forward Tevian Jones and guard Aanen Moody led the T-Birds with 17 points a piece. Moody shot 5-for-7 from 3-point range while playing a season-high 28 minutes. Guard Dre Marin scored 16 points along with 4 steals to help the T-Birds escape with the win.
Idaho guard Damen Thacker scored a game-high 27 points shooting 7-for-17 from the field and 11-for-11 from the free-throw line before fouling out in the final minute of the game. Guard Gabe Quinnett and forward Ja’Vary Christmas both scored 10 a piece for the Vandals.
The T-Birds jumped out to an early lead thanks to hot shooting from deep. Jones hit a long ball at the 8:26 mark in the first half to extend the T-Bird lead to 16 points which would mark the biggest margin of the night. To that point, SUU was over 64% from outside.
The hot shooting would cool down to close out the first half as the T-Birds went into halftime shooting 47% from the field and 47% from deep. At the break, SUU led Idaho by 12, 47-35.
The game would turn into a tale of two halves as the Vandals revved up their shooting and defensive pressure. Idaho’s field goal percentage climbed from 52% to 57% in the second half. At the 15-minute mark of the second half, Idaho cut the lead to single digits.
SUU struggled to find any sort of rhythm on the offensive end in the second half. The team’s field goal percentage dropped from 47% to 43% and it’s 3-point percentage plummeted from 47% to 13%. The T-Birds failed to string a run together bigger than five points to put the Vandals away, and by the 7:48 mark, it was a two-possession game.
A turnover by guard John Knight III led to a Christmas dunk to bring the game within three with just three minutes left. A 3-point shot by Moody on the ensuing possession gave the T-Birds some breathing room, but two free-throws by forward Tanner Christensen and a steal and layup by Christmas brought the game back to within two with just 40 seconds to go.
The game turned into a free throw battle from that point on, which played into SUU’s advantage as Marin, Knight III, and forward Marquis Moore hit six straight to close out the game.
“We were a little disappointed in the way we played as a whole,” Marin said. “We know that we are out here to hang up a banner, so we need to be a lot better.”
Marin and his team struggled to get stops on the defensive end throughout the second half. Idaho was able to string together small runs of seven, five and five that progressively cut into the T-Bird lead piece by piece.
“We have to be better defensively,” Marin said. “We have to trust each other on defense, stop gambling.”
Head coach Todd Simon had a tough time finding a consistent rotation in the second half because of the number of defensive lapses. The Vandals ran guards Thacker and Quinnett through numerous screen actions to get them open 10-15 from the basket.
“We weren’t making tough enough plays to get through the screens,” Simon said. “We [shouldn’t] get hit on screens but that’s what we were doing.”
SUU will look to take away the “floppy” screen action Saturday. During a floppy action, the ball stays at the top of the key and the shooter has his choice between two screens on either side of the lane to free himself up for a mid-range jump shot.
“A lot of those passing lanes can be taken away with increased ball pressure,” Moody said. “That will definitely slow them down Saturday if we can do that a little better.”
SUU star forward Maizen Fausett did not play Thursday night despite dressing. It is unclear whether or not he will play in Saturday’s game.
Thursday’s win marks eight straight for the T-Birds — the program’s longest winning streak in Division I history. SUU now sits at 8-1 on the season. Idaho’s slump continues as they drop to 0-8 on the year and 0-5 in the Big Sky.
The Vandals and Thunderbirds battle once again on Saturday at noon at the America First Event Center. Tip-off is at 12 p.m., and while no fans are allowed in the game, they can view the live stream on PlutoTv.