ST. GEORGE — The colleges in St. George and Cedar City hadn’t met on the basketball court in more than 40 years. Even then, they went by different monikers and were classified differently. In many ways, the mens basketball matchup between Dixie State and Southern Utah on Thursday was the beginning of something new and promising for collegiate athletics in the southwest corner of the state.
Both teams spoke of the significance of the nonconference, preseason affair. There were only 750 fans, but they were loud enough to be counted two, maybe even threefold. The game oscillated in momentum, both on the scoreboard and in general energy. The players quipped back and forth and with each other, all while executing high-level plays like alley-oops. The lead changed hands more times than one could count on one. Long gone were the days when these two schools met as Junior College foes. A new, Division I era of competition arrived, and SUU claimed its first prize.
“Coach said, ‘This game is bigger than Kansas,'” SUU guard John Knight III said. “This is bragging rights for Cedar. They can’t go to St. George and brag. They just got to give us our props.”
It was a long time in the making. The schools hadn’t matched up since the ’60s. SUU went to a four-year university, while Dixie held in JuCo until 2006. Then it worked its way through Division II competition, before finally making the leap to Division I this year. After nearly half a century, the circle closed violently.
SUU took 19 foul calls. Dixie took 25. They combined for seven offensive fouls. The lead changed six times, and the score was tied in five different instances. The ‘Blazers exploded out of the gate, jumping out to a 17-7 lead, but trailed by nine at the end of the half. Isaiah Pope, a transfer playing in his first game after gaining waiver eligibility, took a hard foul trying to drive the paint, stayed down for a minute, mustered the strength to get up and sunk both free throws to turn a one-point trail into a one-point lead with less than 10 minutes left in the game. It stayed close for another five minutes, with the teams still separated by a lone point with 3:43 to play.
It was a Division I newcomer, entering with a perfect 3-0 record still on a mission to prove it belongs and a longstanding member looking to continue a four-game winning streak and show it’s ready to take the next step. It also was an introduction for two schools closer to each other than anyone else and a battle for the right to claim, ‘We won the first one,’ as the rivalry grows. DSU head coach Jon Judkins said it did not feel like a preseason game.
“It almost felt like a conference game, it really did,” Judkins said. “For the community, for the students, it’s not just for the players. It’s for everybody. I think it’s going to be a great rival.”
It might not be long before that conference game atmosphere becomes more than an emulation. Southern Utah announced on Dec. 9 that it received an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference, the very same that enabled Dixie to jump to Division I this year. As of publishing, no formal announcement had been made regarding accepting it, but both teams could see each other twice as a season with conference wins on the line as soon as 2022.
Following a first game that was decided in the end by a hot streak for SUU, landing three consecutive 3-pointers to pull away with a comfortable lead. That stretch started by a botched dunk attempt that bounced out to Aanen Moody. Had it not been for some good fortune, the game could have ended differently.
Imagine that twice a year, maybe in the final weeks of the season with WAC Tournament seeding on the line. Better yet, think about a winner-take-all tournament game.
The schools get to dance again on Monday, when SUU once again hosts Dixie, this time in womens basketball. For the men, they’ll have to wait until next season to match up again. Anticipation is already building.
“It’s time to go to their place,” SUU guard Tevian Jones said.
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