Randy Onwuasor sat in the locker room at the Dee Events Center in Ogden, Utah sick to his stomach.
The Southern Utah star guard was not suffering from a case of nerves. He could not keep any food down without throwing up because of the influenza that has ravaged the Thunderbirds over the last month.
Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon, predictably, was worried. His young Thunderbirds were about to take on their in-state rivals who also happens to be the current front-runners in the Big Sky Conference race. To face Weber State’s talented roster without Onwuasor would be a nightmare for an SUU squad recovering from illness that only has 10 scholarship players even when it is at full strength.
Despite the illness, Onwuasor went out and did what he’s done all season for the rebuilding Thunderbirds. He put Southern Utah on his broad shoulders and carried the load for the duration of the contest.
Southern Utah could not keep pace last Thursday in Ogden, falling to the Wildcats 90-74. But Onwuasor shook off the vomiting he experienced pregame to stuff the stat sheet. The 6-foot-3 combo guard finished with 27 points, 15 rebounds, three assists and three steals in 37 minutes.
“He’s shown the mentality we need to replicate,” Simon, SUU’s first-year head coach, said earlier this week. “He gives the guys a great example of toughness and work ethic. He absolutely works and works and works at it and never gives up.”
Southern Utah enters a weekend in which it hosts Montana on Thursday and Montana State Saturday with a 4-20 mark. SUU is 2-9 in Big Sky play and has lost seven straight contests.
No matter the final result, Onwuasor has stuffed the stat sheet every night out. The burly Texas Tech transfer is the Big Sky’s second leading scorer at 23 points per game, narrowly trailing Montana State’s Tyler Hall (23.3). Onwuasor is tied for seventh nationally in scoring.
“He’s 6-3, but he plays bigger,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire, who’s Griz will try to slow down Onwuasor in Cedar City tonight. “When you watch him on film you think he’s 6-5. He’s physical. He’s good with the ball, he scores the ball. But he’s also a good playmaker. For a guy who takes 20 shots a game and still finds other people that makes him very difficult to guard.”
Onwuasor’s name might sound familiar to followers of the Big Sky. His older brother, Patrick, led the FCS in interceptions and was a finalist for the FCS Defensive Player of the Year while leading Portland State to the playoffs in 2015. Patrick is now a member of the Baltimore Ravens’ active roster in the NFL.
“That’s like dreams coming true being able to see a brother playing NFL,” Onwuasor said. “That’s something we’ve always talked about since we were little. I have similar dreams. That’s why I play this game. That’s why I continue to try to get better every day: to play at the next level.”
Randy Onwuasor went to Texas Tech out of Inglewood (California) High and played in 32 games as a true freshman. The Red Raiders’ coaching staff saw the long-limbed slasher as a player who would primarily serve as a perimeter defender. As a sophomore in 2014-15, Onwuasor played 18.2 minutes per game, averaging 4.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and notching 28 steals. But he was not satisfied with his role and elected to transfer.
He sat out last season per NCAA rules when Nick Robinson was still SUU’s coach. After a last-place finish in the regular-season standings, Robinson was fired.
“That experience was tough having to watch the whole year,” Onwuasor said. “I think that was the best thing for me being able to develop my game and get better each and every day. I just used that year just to get better and improve.
“I learned a lot. I watched a lot of film and I learned things from other people. I learned to be patient. Last year was a big year for me.”
Simon took over last spring, inheriting a roster with just four returning players and went about building a team with just 10 scholarship players. Simon is familiar with strong-willed scorers from his time at Findlay Prep, a premier prep school in Las Vegas that has produced a slew of NBA talent, and more recently from his time as the interim head coach at UNLV. He saw Onwuasor’s talent but knew he needed to hone his skill.
“He’s one of the most improved guys I’ve ever been around,” Simon said. “From where he was in April and May to where he is now is mind-boggling. It’s just a testament to a kid with a great work ethic. He’s a kid where as his confidence grows, he believes he can be an offensive player. At one point, the initial thought was Randy could be a great defensive player but what’s his skill set on the offensive end? He has turned it into his No. 1 strength, his ability to score the ball and that’s a testament to how hard he works. He is always in the gym.”
Onwuasor wasted no time making his presence known for SUU. He scored 35 points in Southern Utah’s season-opener at Valparaiso, his first of five 30-point games this season. He consistently surpassed 25 points during the non-conference, scoring 28 against San Jose State in SUU’s final non-Big Sky contest. But the 92-82 loss was the T-Birds’ seventh straight entering league play.
SUU started Big Sky play 2-0 with wins at Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado. The one thing Onwuasor hadn’t done to that point was shoot it well from beyond the arc. Against NAU, he hit 7-of-11 from deep to go with 6-of-8 from the free throw line to score a career-high 37 points. He added 12 rebounds for good measure in the 93-80 victory.
“He’s a beast,” NAU fifth-year head coach Jack Murphy said. “On a lot of teams, he’d probably be a four-man in this league. He brings the ball down. He’s a tough, physical guard. He does a really good job of getting to the free throw line.
“Against us, he made a lot of shots, 3-point shots. If you don’t guard him early and you let him get confidence from behind the 3-point line, he’s almost unguarable because if he’s making those shots, you are in for a long night.”
Two nights later, Onwuasor lost his 3-point stroke — he finished just 1-of-5 at UNC — but he was nearly perfect otherwise, converting 12 of his 17 shots from inside the arc and all eight of his free throws. His mid-range jump shot with two seconds left gave him 32 points and lifted SUU to a 78-76 victory.
That night on January 5 marks the last time Southern Utah won. Onwuasor scored 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 88-83 loss to Sacramento State. He scored 27 points and grabbed five rebounds in a 79-67 loss at Idaho. He scored 26 points against North Dakota, but Quinton Hooker’s buzzer-beater lifted UND to a 91-89 win.
Even while battling the flu in recent weeks, Onwuasor has carried his team. He notched 27 points and 15 rebounds in the loss at Weber last week before scoring 19 in a lopsided loss at Idaho State. Despite SUU’s team performance, Onwuasor is considered one of the top candidates for the league’s Newcomer of the Year.
“That’s something that is very underrated that people don’t appreciate is what we are asking him to do,” Simon said. “We have him guarding our opponents’ better players. He has to rebound. He has to score. He is blocking shots. He is getting steals. Across all the conference leaderboards, he’s on everything.
“He has a lot on his shoulders and he wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Kyle Sample of Skyline Sports contributed to the reporting of this article. Photos courtesy of Southern Utah athletics. All Rights Reserved.