That’s what the Southern Utah University men’s basketball team achieved after beating rivals Northern Arizona University in the America First Events Center Wednesday by a score of 85-80.
The win was the team’s 14th straight at home, and the T-Birds finished the season without losing in their home arena for the first time since the 2000-01 season — when SUU made its lone appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“The mark of being a good team is when you’re maybe not at your best, and we clearly weren’t there for a good portion of this game, still finding a way to win,” head coach Todd Simon said postgame. “It’s a big accomplishment to have that perfect record at home. You can’t get any better than that.”
Dre Marin tied his career-high with 21 points in what could be his final game in the America First Events Center alongside four assists and six rebounds. Maizen Fausett also finished with 21 points (8-for-11 FG) and pulled in nine rebounds. John Knight III added 16 points (7-for-12 FG). All three players played at least 38 minutes in the game.
Cameron Shelton led all scorers with 25 points and nearly completed a triple-double — grabbing seven rebounds and assisting on nine baskets for NAU. Nik Mains scored 18 points on 6-for-11 3FG. Mains did not make a two-point shot.
SUU coined this contest as “The University of the Parks Game,” given how close both schools are to national parks in Utah and Arizona, and the T-Birds wore special warm-ups to commemorate the occasion.
Marin came out of the gates red hot, scoring three straight 3-pointers to lift the T-Birds to a 9-2 lead. Marin’s second 3-pointer marked the 1,000th point of his career at SUU, a mark that only 11 other players have reached in program history.
NAU responded with an 8-0 run of their own. Simon called out to stop the bleeding, but the Lumberjacks did not cool down.
They made six of their first nine 3-pointers and finished 50% from behind the arc in the first half.
SUU switched to a 2-3 zone after the run, but that only seemed to add fuel to the fire. The Lumberjacks claimed a 26-19 lead at the 10-minute mark and extended it to double digits with a 3-pointer by Mains a couple of minutes later.
Mains drilled another long ball on NAU’s next trip down, and Luke Avdalovic followed suit two minutes later to extend the lead to 15 — the Lumberjacks’ largest of the half.
Marquis Moore checked in at the 5:42 mark, and he seemed to solve all of the T-Birds’ problems in the first half. SUU went on a 22-5 run with Moore on the floor, and the junior forward buried a 3-pointer to cap a 12-0 run to close the half.
The T-Birds went into the break trailing 46-44. They shot 17-for-31 from the field (55%) and 6-for-16 (38%) from behind the arc. The Lumberjacks seemed like they couldn’t miss for much of the first half, shooting 18-of-32 (56%) from the field and 10-for-20 (50%) from three. NAU did not shoot a free throw in the first half.
Fausett pulled in an offensive rebound and finished a layup at the rim to tie the game on SUU’s first possession of the second half, but NAU maintained their lead through a layup by Carson Towt.
The teams exchanged blows over the next few minutes before another layup by Fausett with 14:35 remaining gave SUU their first lead since the 16:18 mark of the first half at 52-51.
Shelton answered immediately with a 3-pointer after an NAU offensive rebound, and while SUU did pull ahead briefly after a three by Jones with 13:43 on the clock, the Lumberjacks nursed a narrow lead over the next few minutes.
Knight carved his way to the basket and knotted things up at 61 with 10:31 left, and Fausett scored a layup off an inbounds play on the ensuing possession to give the T-Birds the lead once again.
But neither team could break away, battling back and forth for the next four minutes until Moore converted a 3-point play to give SUU a 70-65 lead with 6:19 remaining.
NAU fought back and pulled within two points after yet another Mains 3-pointer, but Moore immediately matched it by converting his third 3-point play of the game to keep the lead at five.
SUU clung to that lead over the final four minutes of the game. NAU pulled within one possession after a dunk by Isaiah Lewis, but Knight scored on the ensuing trip down to make it 79-74.
The T-Birds then forced an airball on a 3-point try by Keith Haymon, but Tevian Jones traveled as SUU ran the clock down to give NAU a free possession. Shelton capitalized on the free chance and buried a long triple to cut the lead to two once again.
NAU forced a stop on the next possession, but the Lumberjacks couldn’t gather the rebound and were forced to send Marin to the line with 17 seconds remaining. Marin cooly made both free throws, but Avdalovic splashed a 3-pointer on the other end to cut the lead to 81-80 with 13.5 seconds remaining.
The T-Birds used an unusual in-bounds play where all the players start out of bounds on the baseline to get the ball in, and Marin converted both of his free throws before playing great defense to force Shelton into airballing his game-tying 3-point try out of bounds. Shelton appealed to the refs for a foul call, but came away empty-handed.
Jones scored both free throws after the ensuing inbounds pass, ensuring the victory for SUU.
Moore finished with 13 points on 3-for-5 FG and converted all six of his attempts at the line. He finished +23 in 17 minutes of action to help his team secure the win.
“[My teammates] are always telling me to be ready,” Moore said. “I always tell them that I’m ready. Whenever my number is called, I’ll do what I can to help the team win. That’s what I did tonight.”
The T-Birds made 20 of their 21 free throws in the game, and haven’t lost a game in which they’ve taken more than 20 shots at the charity stripe yet this season.
SUU will travel to Flagstaff, Arizona, on Friday, Feb. 26, at 5 p.m. for the second game of the series. The contest will be broadcast on PlutoTV.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz