PORTLAND — For the first time since joining the league ahead of the 2012 season, the Southern Utah Thunderbird men’s basketball team claimed the Big Sky Conference Regular Season Championship on Saturday afternoon at Viking Pavilion, knocking off the Vikings of Portland State 73-54.
Southern Utah will enter the Big Sky Conference Championship Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, and have a piece of hardware to bring back to Cedar City.
As a program the Thunderbirds hadn’t won a regular season title since the 2000-01 season, when they were members of the Mid-Continental Conference. They were co-champions of the regular season that year. They hadn’t been a lone regular season champion since 1994-95.
“We’re so competitive that I just wanted to finish the game strong, but then I started to just feel grateful,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said about what was going through his head in the final minutes. “So many people have been part of this journey. Former players, former staff, everyone that’s had a hand in building this. This is five years in the making, and so many people have been part of making it happen.”
Southern Utah has also set a new school record for regular season winning percentage this year, finishing the season with a 19-3 overall record and a 12-2 Big Sky Conference mark. SUU’s .846 Big Sky winning percentage is also the most they’ve ever had in any league over the past two decades.
The contest was never really in doubt, as the Thunderbirds led 41-25 at the break and held on to the lead through the final buzzer.
SUU jumped ahead 5-0 out of the gate, and quickly turned that into a 17-5 advantage. PSU was able to cut the lead to five a few times as the opening half wore on, but the momentum swung Southern Utah’s way late and they took a 16-point advantage into the second half.
In the second half, SUU pushed their lead to as many as 24 as they ran away with the contest.
“This group is mature, we have a formula that if we follow we know we’ll be special,” Simon said. “The character of the group is so strong that we know if we play the right way the outcome will be in our favor. This group was confident.”
After Eastern Washington suffered a loss to Idaho State on Wednesday, the Thunderbirds controlled their own destiny to the regular season championship, and were able to secure both victories to claim the trophy.
John Knight III was the leading scorer for the Thunderbirds on the day, matching his career high from Thursday evening at 26 points. He was incredibly efficient, shooting 11-of-13 from the field.
Southern Utah has come a long way in a short amount of time.
Just five seasons ago, the Thunderbirds won only six contests and had a winning percentage of .182. As the years progressed, Simon was able to pull the Thunderbirds to their first winning season since 2006-07 in 2019-20 and now to a Big Sky trophy.
The season didn’t start on an easy note for the Thunderbirds either, as they suffered an 85-83 loss at the buzzer to Loyola Marymount on the first night of the season.
Since that point, the Thunderbirds have only lost twice, once to Weber State and the other to Eastern Washington. Those two teams will be the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in Boise respectively.
In every other contest, the Thunderbirds emerged victorious.
“We’ve got some time to breathe here, and we’re going to take some time to celebrate this one,” Simon said when asked how much time he would give the team to celebrate the victory.
The Thunderbirds will have a BYE to the second round of the Big Sky Conference tournament, and will compete for the first time in Boise on Thursday, March 11.
Story and Photography by: SUU Athletics Strategic Communication