After 15 lead changes and 10 ties, Southern Utah University men’s basketball used stellar free throw shooting to emerge victorious over Eastern Washington University 99-94.
The Thunderbirds came into the second leg of the series in Cheney, Washington shooting 68% from the free-throw line as a team — ranking them 10th in the Big Sky. In Saturday’s game, they made 30-of-34 free-throw attempts (88%) to secure the win.
Tevian Jones led SUU with 27 points on 7-of-13 FG and converted all 10 of his attempts at the line. John Knight III scored 21 points on 7-of-11 from the field and shot 7-of-9 on free throws. Maizen Fausett and Dre Marin both finished with 12 points and pulled in nine and eight rebounds, respectively.
Jacob Davison led all scorers with 31 points (9-of-18 3FG). Kim Aiken Jr. scored 23 points and hauled in 12 rebounds. Tanner Groves finished with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting while Tyler Robertson added 12 points and five assists. Aiken and Robinson both fouled out of the contest. Davison and Groves ended the game with four fouls each.
Aiken scored a layup on EWU’s first possession, but Marin responded with a 3-pointer to give SUU their first lead of the series on the T-Birds’ first shot.
Groves then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Eagles ahead 10-5 at the 17 minute mark. Marin responded with another three of his own on the next possession, but Aiken buried another long distance bomb to maintain the lead.
Knight scored six straight points after blocking a layup attempt by Davison, but was subbed out after picking up his second foul eight minutes in.
Aiken and Groves scored 16 of EWU’s first 18 points, while Knight and Marin combined to score 12 of SUU’s first 15.
Aanen Moody came in for Knight at the 12:08 minute mark and started lighting things up offensively for the T-Birds. Despite his reputation as a 3-point marksman, Moody found success off the dribble against EWU.
He scored two layups and two mid-range jumpers to reclaim the lead 27-24 with eight minutes left in the half. Moody scored 14 points on 7-of-8 FG to buoy the T-Bird offense in Knight’s absence.
Over the next few minutes the teams exchanged baskets before Jones was called for a flagrant foul while jostling with Groves for a rebound, and after the ensuing free throws and a 3-pointer by Davison, EWU led once again 34-29.
Marin scored on the next possession, then Groves was called for a technical foul — sending him to the bench with his third foul. Jones made the technical free throws and Fausett scored in the post on the ensuing possession. Following another SUU defensive stop, Jones drilled a pull-up 3 to cap a 7-0 run that put the T-Birds ahead once again.
Aiken took over during the last few minutes of the half, scoring the Eagles’ last 11 points before time expired. He splashed a double-clutch 3-pointer at the buzzer to put EWU ahead 49-47 at the break.
SUU shot 17-of-28 (4-of-8 3FG) in the first half, good for 61%. The T-Birds held EWU to 17-of-42 (40%) from the field before the break, but they did give up 10 3-pointers on 24 attempts (42%).
Knight tied the game to start the second half, but EWU uncorked a 14-4 run after two Robertson 3-pointers to take a double digit lead 63-53 at the 16:00 mark.
EWU maintained their lead over the next few minutes, but the T-Birds began to charge back after entering the bonus when Groves picked up his fourth foul with 11:20 remaining
With Groves on the bench in foul trouble, the T-Birds scored six straight points before EWU coach Shantay Legans was called for a technical foul following a lengthy stretch of appeals for calls from the sideline.
Jones made the technical free throws, Harrison Butler was fouled and made his free throws on the resulting possession, then Jones made a jumper after a defensive stop to complete a 12-0 run. Eight of the 12 points that gave SUU a 72-69 lead came at the free-throw line.
Groves made a pair of free throws and converted a 3-point play to reclaim the advantage at the 8:00 mark. Over the next four minutes the teams exchanged the lead four times and tied things up on four other occasions.
Butler scored in the paint to tie things up at 83 with 3:51 left to kick off an 8-0 run to put the T-Birds up six. Davison buried a three to pull within one possession, but SUU’s defense tightened up down the stretch.
SUU forced three straight stops on the Eagles’ next possessions, and six straight points at the line by Knight and Jones gave the T-Birds their largest lead of the game 95-86 with 25 seconds left.
Another three by Davison and a pair of missed free throws by Knight kept things interesting down to the wire, but in the end SUU’s consistency at the line and on defense earned them the victory.
SUU shot 32-of-57 from the field (56%) and 5-of-12 (42%) on 3-pointers. No team had shot better than 50% against EWU coming into Saturday’s game.
The Eagles nearly set a program record for 3-pointers in a game, finishing with 19 makes on 44 attempts (44%). However the T-Birds dominated in the paint, outscoring the Eagles 38-22 inside.
At the line, Eastern only shot 12 free throws compared to 34 for the T-Birds.
With the win, SUU moves to 10-2 on the season with a 5-1 record in the Big Sky conference, good for third place behind Montana State (4-0) and Sacramento State (2-0). Eastern Washington falls to 3-5 overall and 2-1 in conference play.
The T-Birds will be back in action on Thursday, Jan. 21 when they visit in-state rivals Weber State University.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication