CEDAR CITY — Four of the Thunderbirds last five games have been decided by less than two points. They came out on the winning end of the first three but couldn’t find a way to beat the defending Big Sky champion Montana Grizzlies.
The Thunderbirds have not beaten the Grizzlies since Dec. 9, 2000, and have a 5-17 overall record against Montana. The loss to Montana also marked SUU’s first home loss of the season.
“We were just too inconsistent,” Thunderbirds head coach Todd Simon said after the game. “A Montana team that is 2-0 and won the league two years in a row, you don’t get to waste possessions and have lapses here and there. That’s what we did. When you’re playing good teams you don’t get to do that. Fifteen turnovers is way too much and that was kind of the story of the game.”
Heading into the locker room at halftime both teams had a low offensive output, with Montana leading 26-21. The Thunderbirds got good looks, but the ball could not find the bottom of the net. The Grizzlies jumped out to an early 14-7 lead with senior Jared Samuelson leading the way. He had 10 of those 14 points, finishing the night with a career-high 21 points.
His matchup with David N’Diaye was costly, but even when the Thunderbirds switched to a smaller lineup, with Maizen Fausett on him Samuelson continued to work both in the post and beyond the arc. It is also key to note that Dwayne Morgan and Andre Adams did not play. Morgan was not present at the game after the birth of his son, and his presence was definitely felt.
“He’s so tough for us and Montana had a couple of buckets that were sheer out-toughing us. That doesn’t happen with Dwayne. We missed him but he’s got important stuff and he’ll be back. This thing is a marathon,” Simon said of Morgan’s absence.
With a number of players being out through the first part of the season, the Thunderbirds have been forced to mix and match their lineups. Fausett, for instance, has only started three games all season. He had 15 points and 11 rebounds to earn the double-double. With all the movement in terms of lineups, the Thunderbirds have had some trouble adjusting.
“It’s tough,” Simon said. “Jakolby has been out, he hasn’t really even practiced since before Long Beach with that hamstring. We kind of threw him into the fire and Damani is a freshman walk-on getting some minutes here and there. You’re kind of throwing it together a little bit and certainly that impacts that assist number. Knowing where guys are, knowing where guys want the ball and all that stuff. That’s part of the issue.”
Fausett said that he trusts Simon and will do whatever his head coach wants him to do. If he wants him to start, he will start, if he wants him to come off the bench, he will. The sophomore says he has no preference, and playing 30 or more minutes in the last three games helps.
“Maizen goes so hard. He drew eight fouls, he’s so physical and so athletic,” Simon said. “He’s a cornerstone for us. He and Harrison are two huge cornerstones for us and they both have been playing outstanding this stretch.”
In the second half, the Thunderbirds cut the lead down to two or four multiple times. They just couldn’t break through the Grizzlies’ lead. Montana never trailed, with only two ties coming at the start of the game and 2-2. They lead for 37:38 of the 40-minute game. The good looks continued in the second half, but they still could not fall. SUU shot 20-51 from the field (39.2%) and 3-13 from beyond the arc (23.1%).
“We had a lot of good looks and we’d been shooting it so well these last couple of games. It kind of reared it’s head here with 3 for 13 from three. We got some outstanding looks but those guys will fire them back in and get hot again another day,” Simon said.
Still, the Thunderbirds found a way to stay in the game. John Knight III had the ball with less than 10 seconds left on the clock when he drove towards the basket. The Montana defense surrounded him and got a jump ball call with four seconds left. This was the story of the game. As a team, SUU had 15 turnovers.
“That’s the game plan, I just have to get in the gym and work on it because I know every time I drive I attract so much attention,” Knight said of attacking the basket. “Now I just have to work on jump stopping, throwing the lob, kicking it out and not getting those offensive fouls because it’ll hurt us in the end.”
Even after that play, Montana missed a free throw and Cameron Oluyitan hurled a half-court shot at the buzzer. The shot missed and SUU lost 60-58.
Knight III made it known after the game that the losing streak had nothing to do with the game.
“That was my first time playing them so I wasn’t listening to the streak,” Knight III said. “They’re the champs and we’ll see them again.”
The Thunderbirds will have another chance to break the losing streak when they end the season against Montana in Missoula on March 7.
SUU plays another home game on Saturday against Montana State, with tip-off scheduled for 2 p.m. from the America First Events Center.
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