The Southern Utah University men’s basketball team wrapped up their final week of Western Athletic Conference play 1-1 in the America First Event Center. This moves their overall record to 20-11 and their WAC play record to 12-6. SUU only needed one win to lock in the first round bye, which was decided in their final game by a loss to the Grand Canyon University Lopes.
Their second game was against the California Baptist University Lancers and was nearly a must-win scenario for the Thunderbirds. SUU controlled the game from tip-off with a team effort victory.
Versus Grand Canyon
The Thunderbirds had a great start to the game and were up 27-14 around the 11 minute mark of the first half. However, GCU had a lot to play for, as they were trying to make their way back into a top-four seed for the Hercules Tire WAC Basketball Tournament.
GCU fought their way back into the game before the end of the half and were down just five points at the break. Sophomore Ray Harrison sparked GCU with a three-pointer and rallied the Lopes to within one point. The only answer SUU had for GCU was fifth-year senior Maizen Fausett, and by the break, the Thunderbirds were up 35-30 over the Lopes.
With just one win, the Thunderbirds would secure a first round bye for the tournament, but Harrison was relentless. He continued to pour it on SUU and earned 19 points in the second half, going on to finish the game with 29. SUU struggled to respond after the Lopes went on a run in the final half.
The Thunderbirds found themselves down by 10 points and could not cut into the lead, flat against a hungry GCU. Although the Thunderbirds lost, Fausett ended with a career-high 31 points and led all scorers.
This moved the Lancers within half of a point of SUU in the WAC Resume Seeding System Standings.
Versus California Baptist
Since it was senior night, none of the Thunderbirds wanted to lose their final home game of their career. Head coach Todd Simon took each senior out one at a time for fans to give them standing ovations. SUU’s defensive focus was on sophomore Taran Armstrong, and the Lancers had a similar plan for senior Tevian Jones. Both teams face-guarded each other’s top performers, which led to more opportunities for others.
In the first half, Armstrong and Jones scored two points apiece, meaning that everyone else had to step up for their respective teams. The pick-and-roll duo of sophomores Drake Allen and Jason Spurgin allowed the Thunderbirds to control the game early.
Graduate student Riley Battin and redshirt sophomore Scotty Washington made multiple big shots for the Lancers in the first half, which kept them within striking distance. At the break, CBU trailed SUU 44-39.
The second half was back and forth for the first few minutes, but the Thunderbirds slowly took control of the game. SUU continued to hound Armstrong and held him to eight points, which is great considering his career-high 25 points was against the Thunderbirds earlier this season. This defensive focus helped the Thunderbirds breeze by the Lancers in the final minutes.
Allen and Spurgin played Stockton and Malone-esque against the Lancers. Allen finished 15 points and eight assists. Most of his assists were to Sprugin, who dominated the paint and scored 20 points. CBU also kept Jones in check, holding him to nine points. It is safe to say that the Thunderbirds were locked in against CBU and played efficient team basketball. But with Armstrong held at bay, Battin led the Lancers with 19 points and was followed by Washington’s 15.
Much like the women, the men made history. Fausett is only the third Thunderbird to become a member of the 1,500-point club. Simon also earned his third 20-win season in a row, which makes him the first coach to do so since Stan Jack from 1976-1979.
Southern Utah will head down to Las Vegas for the WAC Tournament. The Thunderbirds have clinched a first round bye and will play their first game on Thursday, Mar. 9, at 8 p.m. PST. The tournament will be held at the Michelob ULTRA Arena on March 7 and the Orleans Arena on March 9-11.
Story by Chevy Blackburn
Photos courtesy of SUU Athletics