CEDAR CITY — Southern Utah was able to hang on for a close victory last week against in-state rival Utah Valley, and Saturday’s game was no different. The Thunderbirds were able to hold off the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos in Cedar City, 62-61.
“A hard fought game against a very good team,” head coach Todd Simon said of the game. “That’s a well respected Santa Barbara team. They’re older, experienced players who are well coached. I was really proud of the guys, the way they defended in the second half. Obviously we fouled too much but to give up eight field goals in the half is pretty good. We kept them off the line for the game which was important for us, to limit their threes. We did that and we played much better offensively then we have recently.”
The entire game was back and forth, with SUU going into the half up three. Their offense seemed to click like it hadn’t in the last couple games, and the T-birds began to put together a run. Eventually, they were up by eight with 8:34 left, which was the largest lead by any team in the game.
Santa Barbara did not go down easy as they fought back to tie the game with over a minute left. That’s when John Knight III came up big for SUU once again. He drove towards the basket, landed on two feet and pivoted to get a good look. He finished the little floater and got fouled, completing the three point play with 50 seconds left on the clock.
“It’s a part of our practice routine,” Knight III said of finishing through contact. “They foul the crap out of us at practice. There’s two coaches on each side, one with the pad hitting you and another swiping down, so I learned from practice and it translated to the game.”
Simon talked about Knight III as being a tough-minded player. Someone who has taken clutch shots, like last week against UVU, and has become comfortable in those situations. It definitely showed.
After various fouls, UCSB eventually got a five-second count on an SUU inbound play. The Gauchos had the ball back with 3.3 seconds on the clock. They ultimately missed the shot and the Thunderbirds got the win.
“We knew anything was going to be with number 3 or number 2 getting the ball, so we went to one through five switch everything,” Knight III said. ” Every screen, every ball we just switched. He shot a one-legged shot, when he shot that I was already celebrating. I knew he wasn’t going to make that. A one-legged shot for game, nah.”
Knight III also reached a personal milestone, as he did not have a charge called on him. This was a big emphasis as Simon wanted his team to play off two feet. They turned the ball over and got called for charges last week because they were going off one foot to make passes and layups. That changed today.
That wasn’t the only thing that changed. The Thunderbirds were running their sets with ease. Their offense was smooth, and rarely looked disjointed. This was another area of emphasis going into today’s game. Often times, the SUU guards try to attack to early out of their sets, but that wasn’t the case today.
“We’ve been breaking stuff off a little premature,” Simon said. “We’ve got a lot of talented drivers and their mindset is to attack. I think sometimes we get a little too greedy too soon. One of our emphasis this game, and luckily we’ve been hammering it, was to slow down. Let’s let things happen, develop and then see what we can get.”
Knight III ended the game with a team-high 19 points while Harrison Butler finished with a 10 point and 10 rebound double-double. When asked about what he was looking for on the court, he simply said, “I just go out there and I get the ball.”
He also likened himself to former Boston Celtic Kevin McHale in the post, with his use of his pivot foot and pump fakes. Simon said that he was labeled on an opposing team’s scouting report as similar to McHale and Butler has ran with it.
With Christmas approaching, SUU only has one more game left until they get a break. They will be on the road at Long Beach State on Thursday at 8 p.m. MST.
Simon is looking forward to the holiday break as a time to take a break from the toll that the season takes on his players.
“These guys will go home with their families and hit the reset button,” Simon said.
As for his own Christmas celebrations, Simon said that he will spend the holiday in Cedar City with his family and his four children. He won’t be taking a break from basketball himself though.
“We’re going to be here and just enjoy Christmas,” Simon said. “Hang out with the kids, let the four little ones get hyped and excited. Try to probably watch 30 basketball games and see things that we want to do. We’re really just recharging batteries. We encourage everybody to go home and come back ready to get to it.”
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