by Kelton Jacobsen | A King of the South was crowned Thursday as Southern Utah University took down Dixie State University 85-78.
Dixie came out swinging, and put together an eight point lead with 12 minutes to go in the first half. To that point, SUU seemed confused and discombobulated. It was something that SUU fans were not used to witnessing.
In all reality, DSU just couldn’t miss.
Cameron Gooden and Hunter Schofield started the game by hitting two shots in close. Then, Frank Staine drained two wide open three-pointers to put the Trailblazers up by seven less than four minutes into the game.
Another jumper by Jason Youngblood and a layup by Jarod Greene pushed the Trailblazers’ lead to double digits.
Two layups and an and-one free throw brought the T-Birds back within five, but another open three-pointer for the ‘Blazers’ Gooden forced SUU head coach Todd Simon to call a timeout.
The time was 12:08 to go in the first half.
SUU administration decided to allow students and fans into this game, and hard capped the attendance at 750 patrons. With that said, it was loud, but not loud enough to mask Simon’s pleas to his team to wake up and play better.
Finding themselves in an early deficit isn’t anything SUU hasn’t seen before.
Against the University of Montana on December 3, SUU found themselves down 11 just 10 minutes into the game.
Somehow, Simon knows what his team needs to hear to break them out of a slump.
“I just suggested that we weren’t playing great,” Simon said. “I asked them in a very pleasant tone that maybe we needed to play better.”
To that point, SUU was shooting just 27% from the field, had turned the ball over twice, and had committed three fouls.
“This group always responds.” said Simon.
And respond they did.
SUU finished the half on a 33-16 run, including a last second steal and touch pass by Maizen Fausett to John Knight III for a fast break dunk that brought the house down.
But DSU was not about to roll over.
With just eight minutes to go in the second half, DSU had rallied and retaken the lead due to strong free throw shooting and transition lay-ups.
Desperate for some offense, Simon turned to his long range assassin from North Dakota, Aanen Moody.
“I was recruited here for my shooting,” said Moody. “And that’s what fuels my confidence.”
And shoot he did.
Despite missing the last four games for the T-Birds, Moody became the spark they needed to overcome the Trailblazers.
Checking in at the 5:12 mark in the second half, Moody immediately drained a triple to knot the game up at 68.
After SUU gave up a lay-up to Gooden, Butler once again found Moody, for some reason wide open, to put SUU back up one.
The next possession for the T-Birds was a perfectly drawn after-timeout play that gave Moody another wide open look from the corner to put the T-Birds up three.
Nine points in less than two minutes.
Two missed free-throws by Isaiah Pope down at the other end gave SUU the chance to put it away.
The Trailblazers knew what was coming, and as a result, their 2-3 zone defense was cheating towards Moody in the corner.
With the overprotection in the corner, SUU’s leading scorer, Tevian Jones, found himself wide open on the extended elbow.
The junior forward needed no invitation. Without hesitation, he squared his shoulders, rose up, and released the ball.
Welcome to Division-I Dixie State. Cheating will not be tolerated.
Make no mistake, DSU has some supreme talent. Through their first four games, they knocked off two D-I opponents, University of Denver and University of North Dakota.
Schofield was named to the preseason All-WAC second team. Gooden is 14th in the WAC in scoring. Sophomores Pope and Staine have shown definite flashes in their first years against D-I talent.
In addition to the skill, the team is extremely well coached. Jon Judkins has been with Dixie State for 16 seasons, has an overall Division II record of 265-121, and was the first men’s coach in Utah collegiate basketball history to reach the 500 win mark.
SUU is still taller, seasoned, and more athletic.
The Thunderbirds are led by senior guards Knight III, Dre Marin, and Ivan Madunic. Together, they combine for over 30 PPG, 15 RPG, 17 APG, and 5 SPG.
The three seniors are followed up by juniors Jones, Fausett, Butler, and Moody, who have all played at least three years in Division-I college basketball.
If Sanders needs to, he can reach even further down in his bench to bring in Nick Fleming, a 40% 3-point shooter and floor general, Marquis Moore, a do it all defensive forward, and Courtese Cooper, a long and athletic forward who blocks any shot that comes near.
These are luxuries DSU just doesn’t have.
The Trailblazers looked outmatched against Knight III, who got whatever he wanted as he shot 9-10 in Thursday’s game.
They couldn’t keep up with the sharp shooting of Jones and Moody.
They were outrebounded by 14 despite not one T-Bird pulling down double digit rebounds.
The difference between the two teams Thursday came down to toughness, both mentally and physically.
SUU knew how to get punched in the mouth and take it, but DSU couldn’t figure out how to stop SUU when it mattered.
“We expected it,” Knight III said. “I kid you not, the first thing coach Simon said was expect their first punch. Nobody gets down on themselves. Everybody just uplifts and fights for each other.”
And SUU knew what this game meant.
“We just can’t wait to play them at their place,” Moody said. “And we are already up 1-0.”
It remains to be seen when the T-Birds and Trailblazers will square off again. SUU has recently received a formal invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference, where DSU currently resides. A shift in conferences would make for multiple match-ups each season for the two teams.
However, Dixie State’s recent upgrade to Division-I status will provide for many potential match-ups for the future.
That’s the future.
For now, Southern Utah reigns supreme as the King of the South.
(For more on SUU sports, check out Kelton’s other pieces on suunews.net)
Featured image courtesy SUU Athletics Strategic Communication