Southern Utah men’s basketball makes late push to beat Montana State

CEDAR CITY — The Thunderbirds got their second Big Sky conference win of the season after defeating Montana State on Saturday afternoon by a score of 59-53.

The first half had a very slow pace to it, with MSU leading at the half 21-17. The focus was defense and that is something that SUU (9-5, 2-1 in conference) has been doing consistently for most of the season. The Thunderbird offense then came to life in the second, scoring 42 points and giving them the six-point victory.

Montana State at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 4, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

After a close loss to Montana on Thursday, the Thunderbirds responded on Saturday to split the weekend.

“The bounce back is huge,” SUU guard Harrison Butler said. “After a loss like that, you just have to wash it off your back and focus on the next game. I think that’s what we did. In the first half, we focused on our defense and our defense carried us. We weren’t hitting shots and our defense carried into the second half, then we started hitting shots.”

For SUU, it seemed like there was a lid on the rim for most of the first half.

The score was 11-10 in favor of Montana State with 3:56 left on the clock. A Butler three at the 2:30 mark tied the game at 13. After that shot went in, head coach Todd Simon looked to the sky as if to say, ‘thank God.'”

“That’s an understatement,” Simon said of their lack of offense in the first half. “We were getting outstanding shots, they just weren’t going in. Their strategy was to really pack it in and give us those shots. You see with this team, we’ve got the first and the third most threes in school history in a game, then there’s games like this.”

Montana State at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 4, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The offensive struggles have been off and on for SUU throughout most of the season. Their three-point shooting percentage as a team is 30%, but the T-birds only shot 13.6% against MSU. They went 3-22 from deep through the game.

Both Butler and Maizen Fausett said that they take those shots in practice, so they have confidence in themselves. They just haven’t been able to do so in certain games. Then there are games like Long Beach State where they hit 15.

Simon characterized their offense as inconsistent, and it has been. Regardless of their shooting percentage, SUU has made a living on defense and that is what has gotten them their wins.

“I didn’t know we could play defense like that to be honest with you,” Butler said of the first-half performance. “I was amazed myself when I looked at the score.”

Their defensive intensity did not drop when their offense was struggling. They continued to get stops, which allowed them to keep the game close in the first half. Then they came out in the second half, and their offense started producing.

Montana State at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 4, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Harald Frey, the point guard for MSU, was selected to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team and was a focus for the Thunderbirds Saturday. They limited him to 14 points and 3-11 shooting in almost 40 minutes of play.

“I believe he’s averaged 28.5 (points) in this building which isn’t exciting for us,” Simons said of Frey. “Our deal was, we were going to double team every ball screen and get it out of his hands. Somebody, anybody else was going to have to beat us but not him.”

When asked about what he has seen from the conference this season, Fausett can tell it’s going to be a tough year in the Big Sky.

“It’s going to be cutthroat, anyone can beat anyone, so this win is big,” Fausett said. “One win can make a huge difference in our record and where it places us.”

The Thunderbirds travel to Pocatello, Idaho on Thursday to take on Idaho State at 7 p.m.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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