Thunderbirds drop last-second heartbreaker in season opener

SUU's John Knight III is fouled by NAU's Cameron Shelton in the final seconds of Southern Utah University's loss to Northern Arizona, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 16, 2020 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — It took a buzzer beater to best the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in their season opener at Loyola Marymount on Wednesday night.

LMU guard Jalin Anderson sunk a jumper from inside the right wing after a broken play left the ball on the ground in the final seconds, securing an 85-83 win. It gave new LMU head coach Stan Johnson his first win with the program, besting the school where he was a three-time letter winner as a player. The Thunderbirds took 25 fouls that led to 21 successful free throws on 31 attempts, erasing an early lead and letting the Lions catch up on the scoreboard on their way to victory.

The Thunderbirds stormed out of the gate, hitting five of their first six three-pointer attempts and five of their first eight from the field to lead 19-7 just over seven minutes in the game. The 12-point advantage would be their biggest lead of the game.

But 14 fouls in the half allowed the Lions to whittle away that lead slowly, emphasized by a storming layup by Australian forward Keli Leaupepe that knotted the score at 32-32. Loyola Marymount hit nine of 16 free throws in the first half to make up for just 14 field goals and keep them in the game.

The two teams worked as inverses of each other, with SUU shooting around 50% from the field while LMU controlled the paint and let the SUU defense rack up the fouls. The Thunderbirds took 11 fouls after the 8:00 on the clock.

LMU worked to a 39-38 lead on another layup by Leaupepe with 1:01 to go, their first lead of the game and only of the half.

Tevian Jones hit a layup and made a free throw before Knight III hit a one-pointer of his own to help SUU to a 42-41 lead at the half.

Jones had 17 first-half points, including a perfect 5-for-5 on free throws, two three-pointers and an additional three from the field.

After Jones bricked a three attempt on the first possession of the second half, Mattias Markussan cleaned up an offensive rebound and put away the layup. With the and-one from the foul he drew, LMU was back on top 44-42 early in the first half.

The T-Birds took three fouls in the first 2:15 of the second half.

But the foul luck started to turn to Southern Utah’s favor as the halfway mark of the second half approached.

Knight III gave the Thunderbirds their first lead of the second half, slamming a dunk and posterizing Quentin Jackson to draw the foul to make the score 54-52 with 12:03 left in the game. He missed the free throw but drew another foul after LMU tied it and knocked down both from the line on that attempt to make it 56-54. He drew another foul, his third in the stretch of a minute in a half, but also missed the shot from the line for that penalty.

At the 9:40 mark, LMU’s Dameane Douglass missed a layup attempt on an odd-man rush that the Thunderbirds turned around into a wide-open three for Dre Marin to make it 65-61. What could have easily been a one-point trail for Southern Utah turned to a four-point lead that gave them some cushion as the team’s traded scores for the next six minutes.

Fouls returned to haunt, however. between the Marin foul and a layup-and-one by Leaupepe, SUU maintained at least a two-point lead. But Leaupepe’s made free throw pulled the Lions within one.

LMU regained the lead on a layup by Eli Scott, who stretched it to two points shortly after on his trip to the free-throw line.

Knight III stormed the net on a give and go with just under 20 seconds left, hitting the layup to draw within one and sunk his free throw to knot the score at 83-83, before Anderson’s heroics sealed the victory for Loyola Marymount.

Knight III led Southern Utah with 19 points, 13 of which came in the second half. He also tallied 10 assists.

The Thunderbirds play again in the home opener vs. University of Saint Katherine at America First Event Center on Saturday. Southern Utah is not allowing fans at this time, but a live stream will be available on the athletics department’s website.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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