ST. GEORGE — Dre Marin’s shot just bounced in and out of the hoop. The would-be 3-pointer, along with many of the Thunderbirds’ shots in overtime and the final minutes of the fourth quarter, was just not meant to be. With it, Southern Utah University’s bid at its first ever Big Sky tournament title came to an end.
A magical season that established the Thunderbirds as true contenders went with it. Southern Utah took the Big Sky regular season title with a 20-4 record and 12-2 in conference play. They won all 14 games played at America First Event Center.
A rebuild five years in the making was finally finished. In a year no one will forget due to COVID-19, Southern Utah basketball will be a bright memory in Cedar City.
“Man, we did so many good things this year,” Marin said. “I’m just so proud of this group and everything we accomplished. From four years ago to now, it’s night and day. I’m very happy with everything we put in and everything we got out of it.”
Marin, along with Ivan Madunic, are the only four-year seniors to play their entire collegiate careers for the Thunderbirds. They arrived in 2016-17, Simon’s second year at the helm of the program. The team went 6-27 that season.
But the program got better every year. They won 13 games in 2017-18, reached .500 at 17-17 in 2018-19 and went 17-15 in 2019-20 with a chance to challenge for the Big Sky tournament championship before it was canceled. It shot into the stratosphere this season.
The Thunderbirds’ aptly-total 2,021 points were at least 40 more than any other Big Sky team. Second-place Northern Colorado had 1,981 but played four more games than SUU. The T-Birds averaged 84.2 points, the fourth highest mark in the nation. Junior Tevian Jones was fourth in the Big Sky with 16.9 points a game and was 17 points behind the overall point crown. Jones was far from alone as a scoring threat though: senior John Knight III ranked eighth in the conference, junior Maizen Fausett was 15th and Marin was 18th. Knight led the conference in field goal percentage and was unstoppable when rushing the paint.
Put it all together and the Thunderbirds had a juggernaut that was controlling on both side of the court in Big Sky play. They allowed an average of under 70 points a game.
It was different than last year’s group, which Simon thought would be the one to take the next step in the program. However, injuries, luck and eventually COVID-19 had other ideas. He said the team had started solving the puzzle going into the Big Sky tournament and was preparing for the quarterfinals when the season was called off.
This year, perhaps with that unfinished business in mind, the team was ready from the get-go.
“The moment I got back and this group was together I was like, ‘OK, there’s something different in the air,'” Marin said. “The vibe in the air was very positive and enthusiastic. Dudes wanted to be in the gym more than ever. Guys from last year who came back were all of a sudden in the gym more. Then all these new dudes were coming. They were in the gym and it was just, everyone was holding each other accountable. The competition, day-in and day-out was super high.
“I don’t think we ever had a day where it was like, ‘Yo, something is wrong.'”
Simon echoed the sentiment, saying the team didn’t have a single bad practice in their more than 80 on the year.
Where last year’s group failed to stay healthy and find its mojo, this year’s thrived by working as a team and putting in the work. Marin said part of the issue in 2019-20 was players on the team not necessarily trusting each other. In 2020-21, it was never a problem.
Marin said the group was as close as ever, partly because they had to be due to the virus. They couldn’t go out and socialize. They couldn’t interact with fans and the community like they normally would.
“We were so removed from a lot of distractions that you normally face in a regular year,” Marin said. “We were always all we had and all we needed and we just learned to rely on each other. That family bond, it’s kind of a cliché to say, but it was real this year. You could genuinely feel it. That’s why I think it also hurts so bad after this year. Just like, ‘Dang, this group was special.'”
The bond and trust was tested early. The Thunderbirds started the campaign with a close 85-83 loss at Loyola Marymount on Nov. 25. Their first two Big Sky games, played against Montana, ended in two wins decided by one point each.
Then the cancellations started to come in on an already revised schedule. First, it was a non-conference contest against SAGU American Indian College that was replaced with Bethesda College. Next it was two Big Sky games against Montana State, slated to be the last game in 2020 and first in 2021. After that it was four in a row from Jan. 28 through Feb. 6 due to COVID-19 positives in the program, requiring it to pause. They got Benedictine University at Mesa on the schedule on Feb. 6, already having gone two full weeks without game action. It would be 26 full days between Big Sky competitions.
Through it all, they were forced to trust each other’s ability to stay in shape and be ready when the time came. That, too, was never an issue.
Once they were on the court, they never missed a beat. They won out the final six Big Sky games and eight total heading into to Big Sky tournament play with the No. 1 seed and an outright regular season title.
They bested Northern Colorado in the first round, clinching their program-best 10th straight win as a member of Division I in the process. They came within a lucky bounce of advancing into the finals.
In regular times, the outright conference champion would have earned a berth into the National Invitation Tournament. In COVID-19 times, the tournament was vastly reduced in size and the Thunderbirds did not get the call.
None of Marin, Knight or Madunic have decided one way or the other if they will utilize the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for the COVID-19 era. If they go, they’ll each leave a legacy. Marin will depart as the program’s all-time games played leader and one of its eight 1,000-point scorers.
More so, they’ll be remembered for what was the program’s best season that will be hard to top. Simon was showered with accolades from the conference and beyond. So were the players.
For Marin and likely the other players, they’ll remember it slightly differently.
“I would like people just to know how much fun this group had with each other,” Marin said. “It made me realize, and I hope to whenever one day I’m coaching to tell people, tell my players and people, ‘It’s basketball.’ This was the most fun I’ve ever had playing. Yeah, we were winning, but we were winning because of those things. The more fun we had, the easier the game was.”
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