RENO, Nevada — The Thunderbirds locked down one of the best shooting teams in the Big Sky and surged to their second first-round upset in as many years here on Tuesday night.
A season after toppling sixth-seeded Montana State in triple overtime as the last-place team in the league, Southern Utah pulled out a win as the lower seed once again.
The 10th-seeded Thunderbirds limited Idaho State to 3-of-17 shooting from beyond the arc, spread the floor offensively for most of the last 30 minutes of action and hit eight straight free throws in the final three minutes of the game to seal a 76-68 win over the seventh-seeded Bengals in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament on Tuesday night.
“Last year was the first tournament win for this program and we celebrated,” SUU second-year head coach Todd Simon said. “It was an overtime thriller, we left it on the floor and it was a big deal. Today was very workman like. There was some high-fiving but it was an expectation to win. Seeing that growth made this real special because now we are turning the corner where we are expecting to win these games.”
The Bengals entered the game shooting 40.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team. ISU averaged 8.6 3-pointers made per game during a 9-9 finish in Big Sky play. All-Big Sky sophomore Jared Stutzman shot 54.4 percent from deep in league play and 53.7 percent overall, the second-best mark in the country.
SUU didn’t even let Idaho State shoot a 3-pointer until almost 13 minutes in the game. The Thunderbirds limited Stutzman to 11 points and 1-of-6 shooting from behind the line.
“The No. 1 key on our board — probably one, two and three — was to limit 3-point shooting,” SUU second-year head coach Todd Simon said. “Stutzman is a fantastic shooter, one of the best in the country.
“We wanted to force them to beat them from two and do it without fouling. Limiting that arc for as talented as they are out there was important for us.”
The Thunderbirds were able to seize control after a Brandon Boyd technical foul relegated ISU’s sophomore point guard to the bench for the final nine minutes of the first half.
Behind the valiant effort of senior wing Geno Luzcando, Idaho State kept the Thunderbirds from pulling away. Luzcando hit all six of his shots after halftime and scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half. His put-back dunk with 4:21 left cut the SUU lead to 64-58 and his offensive rebound with two minutes left led to a Boyd 3-pointer that cut the margin to 66-63.
From there, SUU locked in at the charity stripe. Brandon Better, who finished with a team-high 18 points, and Jadon Cohee, who scored 15, each hit four straight free throws in the final two minutes to help SUU move into Thursday’s quarterfinal against No. 2 seed Idaho.
“We definitely felt confident but at the same time, we knew what was a good opponent so we had to bring it,” Better said. “We knew that they had outside shooters so as long as we stopped the outside shooters and stuck to our game plan, I felt pretty good about the game going in.”
Last March, Randy Onwuasor scored a Big Sky Tournament record 43 points to lead SUU to the 109-105 win over Montana State. Simon lost Onwuasor to a transfer to LSU and added eight new players to the roster, including Better, Cohee, UNLV graduate transfer Dwayne Morgan and BYU transfer power forward Jamal Aytes.
The T-Birds gelled early, posting a 6-5 record in non-conference play, equaling the win total from a season ago. Southern Utah struggled at the outset of league play, stumbling to a 2-8 start. In February, Simon’s team began to turn a corner, beating Idaho State 84-80 after losing 93-78 in Pocatello a month earlier.
That ISU win was part of a February that included three of SUU’s five Big Sky wins. The stretch also included a 96-91 overtime loss to Portland State and a 78-76 loss to Idaho in the final home game for the Vandals’ six seniors.
“We’ve had a pretty good stretch since February 1,” Simon said. “We’ve been holding opponents and executing defensive game plans.”
Despite hurting his left shoulder on a thunderous dunk less than two minutes into the game, the 6-foot-9 Morgan finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Aytes scored 10 points to join the other three former transfers in double figures in their first Big Sky Tournaments.
“We’ve just staying together,” Morgan said. “Whether or not we are hitting shots, we are playing together on offense, trying to share the ball and it’s really coming together on the defensive end. Early in the season, our problem was defense and we’ve really focused on that. I think that’s the turning point this last month.”
Idaho State hit 17 3-pointers and scored 101 points, including 61 in the second half of a 23-point win at Montana State less than a week ago. The Bengals competed for 40 minutes in a 75-64 loss at outright league champion Montana on Saturday in their regular-season finale.
Tuesday, with the long, athletic T-Birds closing out on shooters and chasing ISU off the line, the Bengals simply went cold. Boyd, named the league’s Top Reserve on Sunday, scored 14 points in the first 10 minutes of the game, getting to the rim at will but jawing at the officials in request for foul calls on almost every finish. He eventually earned a technical foul to the ire of ISU head coach Bill Evans, who sat him for the final 8:45 of the first half.
Idaho State went from holding a 28-20 lead to trailing 39-30 before closing the half down 39-33. Better’s 3-poitner 2:20 into the second half gave Southern Utah its biggest lead, 48-35. Luzcando, Boyd and junior center Novak Topalovic kept ISU in it by scoring 31 of the Bengals’ 35 second-half points but Idaho State made just one of its 11 shots from deep after halftime to finish its season 14-16.
“That was pretty uncharacteristic of who we are and we picked a bad day to do that because Southern Utah played well,” said ISU sixth-year head coach Bill Evans, who spent 16 seasons at Southern Utah between 1991 and 2007. “Sometimes, you come to venues like this and it’s more difficult to shoot the ball.
“This has been one of the best groups of guys I have coached in my career and I have coached some good groups of guys as a team. Good to coach, easy to be around, respectful of not only me but one another. They worked hard. The whole year, they didn’t let me down one time. They didn’t let me down tonight. It wasn’t as good as we wanted to do but you have to give Southern Utah credit.”
Four days ago in Moscow, Idaho senior BJ Blake solidified his spot on the All-Big Sky first team with a game-winning shot in the waning seconds, capping a 24-point, 11-rebound double-double in UI’s 78-76 win. SUU trailed by two with two minutes left in an 80-76 home loss to Idaho in Cedar City in January.
“It’s now or never,” Morgan said. “We want to win. To get another shot at them is a good feeling.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.