T-Bird Men Take On North Dakota In Big Sky Quarterfinals

March 11, 2013
By SUU Strategic Communication

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Senior Jordan Johnson will help lead SUU into its first Big Sky tournament
Senior Jordan Johnson will help lead SUU into its first Big Sky tournament
Courtesy: SUU Strategic Communications

Southern Utah's men's basketball team will face a somewhat familiar foe when it opens the Big Sky tournament on Thursday: North Dakota. Game time is 5:30 p.m. (MDT) at the University of Montana's Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Montana.

Although the two teams hadn't ever met on the hardwood before they both joined the Big Sky last summer, they ended the regular season against each other last Saturday afternoon in Grand Forks, N.D.

The two teams split their first two meetings, with the Thunderbirds taking a 79-67 win in Cedar City in the first Big Sky men's basketball game for both schools, while North Dakota claimed a 68-61 home win on Saturday.

Southern Utah (11-19/8-12 Big Sky) enters the tournament as the sixth seed after coming out on top of a three-way tie-breaker with Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. All three wound up with 8-12 conference marks. SUU was 3-1 against the other two after sweeping NAU and splitting with Sac State, while NAU was 2-2 after sweeping the Hornets. That left SAC with a 1-3 mark against SUU and NAU and out of the tourney and gave SUU the sixth seed by virtue of the sweep of the Lumberjacks.

The Thunderbirds, who played three games last week, have lost four straight close decisions, including a 62-61 loss to Montana State on  Feb. 28, an 86-74 setback in overtime to league champion Montana (March 4), then loses at Northern Colorado (66-58) and UND (68-61) last Thursday and Saturday.

North Dakota (15-15/12-8 Big Sky) enters the tournament as the third seed after posting a 12-8 conference mark in its first Big Sky campaign. UND, which played just one game last week, has won three straight games.

This will be the second time SUU has faced another first-year opponent in its first conference tournament, as well as the second time it met that opponent in the final regular-season game. In 1998, SUU's first in the then-Mid-Continent Conference, the Thunderbirds faced Oral Roberts, which was also in its first season in the league, in the season-finale and in the opening round of the conference tourney. After losing an 86-69 decision at ORU in the season finale the Thunderbirds took the Golden Eagles to two overtimes in the first round of the tourney before eventually falling, 94-84.

The Game: Southern Utah (11-19/8-12) vs. North Dakota (15-15/12-8), Thursday at 5:30 p.m. (MDT), at Dahlberg Arena (7,321), Missoula Mont.

The Series: Saturday's game will be the third between the two schools and the second in a week as UND claimed a 68-61 home win over the Thunderbirds last Saturday. SUU came out on top of the first meeting - the first Big Sky men's basketball game for either school - by a 79-67 count in December.

TV: There will be no live television coverage of the tournament's first or second rounds. Should SUU advance to the tournament championship, that game will be televised live by ESPNU at 7:00 p.m. Saturday.

Radio: All of Southern Utah men's basketball games are broadcast live by KSUU (91.1 FM). Art Challis is in his 40th season as the Thunderbirds' basketball play-by-play voice. Dr. Challis - chair of SUU's Department of Communication - will be joined on the broadcasts by former SUU standout and current SUU VP for University Relations Dean O'Driscoll.

On The Internet: Video web-streaming coverage of the tournament will be available on Big Sky TV, at www.bigskytv.org. Audio of SUU's games will be available at www.power91radio.com.

Coming Up: The tournament's second-round games will be Friday at 5:30 and 8:00 p.m. The tournament is re-seeded after the first round, with the lowest seeded team moving on to play regular-season champ and host Montana at 8:00 p.m. while the two remaining seeds will face each other at 5:30 p.m.

Captains: This year's captains are seniors Jackson Stevenett and Tyson Koehler.

BSC Player of the Week:Damon Heuir earned his second Big Sky Conference Player of the Week award following his play in the Thunderbirds' home wins over Sacramento State and Northern Arizona. Heuir averaged 27.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in the two wins. He scored 28 points with seven rebounds, seven assists and a steal in the team's 79-67 win over Sacramento State, then scored 27 points with four rebounds, an assist and a steal two nights later against the Lumberjacks. Heuir's first BSC Player of the Week award came after he scored 30 points to lead SUU to its first road win of the season, a 90-77 victory at Northern Arizona on Jan. 5. That week he shared the honors with Weber State's Scott Bamforth.

The Coaches: 

Head Coach Nick Robinson (Stanford, 2005) is 11-19 in his first season at SUU and his first season as a head coach. Coach Robinson came to Southern Utah from LSU, where he spent three seasons on the staff. Prior to his time at LSU Robinson spent a season at William Jewell College and two seasons on the staff at his alma mater, Stanford. During his time as an assistant coach, Robinson helped guide his teams to a combined record of 87-47 and four post-season appearances, including two NCAA, one NIT and one NAIA Division I national tournaments. Robinson is 1-1 vs. North Dakota.

Robinson is assisted by Jared Barrett (Eastern Oregon, 1996), Todd Okeson (Nevada, 2005) and Drew Allen (Southern Utah, 2010).

North Dakota is coached by Brian Jones (Northern Iowa, 1984). Jones is 103-113 in his seventh season at UND and his seventh as a head coach. He is 1-1 vs. SUU.

Affiliations: Southern Utah is in its first season as a member of the Big Sky Conference. All of SUU's sports except gymnastics and men's golf compete in the Big Sky. Gymnastics is an affiliate member of the WAC while men's golf competes in the American Sky Conference.

The Schedule: The Thunderbirds have played 10 non-conference games, four at home, four true road contests, and two neutral court match-ups. They have played eight conference games at home and eight on the road. SUU opened at #21 Gonzaga, then played three games in three days at the World Vision Classic, meeting Green Bay, Cal State Fullerton and host Nevada before opening its home schedule against Carroll College. SUU also played non-conference games at TCU, at Denver, and at home against San Diego Christian, San Diego and Cal State Northridge.

Scouting North Dakota: 

UND finished the season 9-5 at home and 6-10 on the road but Thursday's game will be the team's first on a neutral court this season. North Dakota's 12 conference wins are the most ever by a first-year Big Sky team.

North Dakota has won four of its last five games, with three of the wins coming on the road: at Northern Colorado (64-62), at Portland State (74-66), at Eastern Washington (78-74) and at home vs. SUU (68-61). The only hiccup in the last five was an 83-75 setback at Nebraska-Omaha on BracketBuster weekend.

Troy Huff (G/F, 6-5, 174, Jr), who missed the first game between the two schools, leads UND with 19.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while his 19.7 ppg in Big Sky games ranks second in the conference. Aaron Anderson (G, 5-10, 150, Jr) averages 13.6 ppg, while Jamal Webb (G, 6-1, 188, Jr) and Josh Schuler (G, 6-3, 184, Jr) are also close to double-figures, at 9.6 and 9.3 ppg, respectively. Webb averages 4.1 assists per game (which ranks fourth in the Big Sky) while Anderson has dished out 3.3 dimes per game.

Anderson started last week's game against SUU but played just four minutes after running into a hard screen set by Jaren Jeffery and suffering what following the game was believed to be a concussion. Webb came off the bench on senior night to lead UND in points (19), rebounding (nine) and assists (five).

As a team, North Dakota averages 67.1 points per game on .420 overall shooting (.339 threes) while opponents have averaged 67.9 points on .433 shooting (.338 threes). North Dakota has converted 71.2 percent of its free throw opportunities and has been out-rebounded by an average of 36.0-to-33.9 caroms per game.

In conference games North Dakota averaged 68.2 points on 41.8 percent shooting (.335 threes) while allowing 68.8 points on .443 shooting (.331 threes). UND has hit 73.1 percent of its free throws in Big Sky games and has been out-rebounded by an average of 36.3-to-33.6 per game.

Last Time Out: A.J. Hess scored 16 points to lead three Thunderbirds in double figures but North Dakota held Jackson Stevenett to seven points in taking a 68-61 win in the regular-season finale for both teams. Stevenett, who came into the game averaging 18.1 points per game, 19.9 in conference games, hit just two of 15 field goal attempts in seeing his streak of 23 consecutive games in double figures come to an end. He did, however, co-lead the team with nine rebounds, along with Jaren Jeffery, who posted a career-high. Southern Utah struggled from the field, making just 7-of-31 shots in the first half and 21-of-66 overall and North Dakota wasn't much better, connecting on 20-of-56 shots. Damon Heuir finished with 12 points while Cal Hanks had 10 points and eight rebounds and Chris Nsenki dished out a career-high five assists for the Thunderbirds. Both teams weathered lengthy scoreless droughts in the first half. After taking a 5-2 lead SUU went from the 16:49 mark until 12:40 without a basket, allowing UND go to up 10-5 before Jaren Jeffery finally scored to end the dry spell. Jamal Webb hit two free throws to stake UND to a 12-7 lead but SUU then held North Dakota scoreless for nearly five minutes and built a 14-12 advantage on an A.J. Hess 3-pointer. UND got back on  the board with 7:42 remaining in the period when Webb hit a three and went on to take a 28-24 lead at halftime. Hess hit a jumper to open the second half then Jeffery scored inside to tie the game at 28-28 but the Thunderbirds couldn't take a lead in the second half. Each team hit one of two free throws, then Lenny Antwi hit a 3-pointer to give UND a 32-29 lead. North Dakota slowly pulled away, building a 47-37 lead on a Josh Schuler 3-pointer and eventually built a 13-point advantage but the Thunderbirds rallied, getting within 57-52 on a 7-0 run that included a jumper by Cal Hanks, a Hess three and a jumper by Jayson Cheesman with 2:44 to go but the T-Birds weren't able to get over the hump. 

T-Birds In The National Ranks: (Through 3/7) The Thunderbirds have two players ranked in three categories in the NCAA's top-100, and the team ranks among the top-100 in three categories as well. Jackson Stevenett ranks 11th in free throw percentage at .884 and 43rd in scoring (17.7 ppg) while Jayson Cheesman ranks 54th in blocks per game with an average of 2.03. As a team the Thunderbirds are 28th in the country with 5.0 blocks per game, 63rd in free throw percentage (.727) and 83rd in rebounding margin (plus 3.3).

T-Birds In The Big Sky:

Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir Heuir are second and third in scoring in the conference when all games are considered. Stevenett is second in the BSC at 17.7 points per game while Heuir checks in at 15.8 ppg. Stevenett is also second in free throw percentage at .869, fourth in minutes per game (33.7), seventh in rebounding with 6.2 per game and offensive rebounds per game (2.1) and ninth in defensive rebounds per game (4.1). Heuir is fifth in 3-pointers per game (1.9) and 10th in assists (3.3), while Cheesman is third in blocks per game with 2.0, eighth in rebounding with 6.0 rpg and eighth in defensive rebounds with 4.4 per game. Cal Hanks is ninth in blocks per game with 1.2. The team leads the conference in offensive rebounds (12.2 rpg), and is second in blocks (5.0 per game), rebounding margin (plus 3.3) and defensive rebounds (25.5 rpg) and third in free throw percentage (.728).

When only conference games are considered, Stevenett ranks third in the Big Sky with 19.3 ppg while Heuir is fourth in the league with 16.4 ppg. Stevenett is also third in minutes played (34.8 per game), fourth in free throw percentage (.853), sixth in offensive rebounds (2.4 rpg), seventh in overall rebounding (6.7 rpg) and ninth in defensive rebounds (4.3 rpg). Heuir is sixth in 3-pointers per game (2.1), eighth in free throw percentage (.822) and ninth in assists (3.5). Cheesman is fourth in blocks per game (1.8),  eighth in defensive rebounds (4.5 rpg), and 10th in overall rebounding (6.2 rpg); while Hanks is sixth in blocks (1.3 bpg). The team leads the league in offensive rebounds (12.7 pg) and is second in defensive boards (25.4) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.317) and blocks per game (5.1), and ranks third in free throw percentage (.741), field goal percentage defense (.414) and rebounding margin (+2.2).

Moving Up The Ranks:

Jackson Stevenett is one of just three T-Birds to currently rank among SUU's career top-10 in both scoring and rebounding. With seven points at North Dakota Stevenett now has 1,258 points in his three-plus seasons as a Thunderbird, good for fifth on SUU's career scoring sheet. He passed Robert "Dunn" Lee, who scored 1,249 points from 1974 to 1977 at Northern Colorado and now needs 17 to tie Skip Mead (1968-70) in fourth place on the list. Stevenett also has 498 career rebounds, which ranks is tied with Lew Christensen (1965-69) for eighth place on the SUU career list. He went by Dana Achtzehn (1990-92), who had 492, at UND. The only other two players currently in the top-10 in both scoring and rebound are Richard Barton and Lee. Barton is second on SUU's career scoring list with 1,419 points and fourth on its rebounding list with 557 while Lee is second in rebounding with 652 boards and fifth in scoring with 652 points. Barton played in 1986-87 then returned to the team after an LDS church mission to play the 1990-93 seasons.

Stevenett's 513 points this season ranks 15th on SUU's single-season scoring list. He needs five points to move into 14th place and 27 to crack the top-10.

Jayson Cheesman has blocked 60 shots this season, which is  tied for second on SUU's single-season list and is fourth on the career list. He is tied with Sean Allen (1994-95) for second place and needs four to tie Matt Hodgson (2009-10) atop the single-season list. He moved out of a tie with Kerry Sherwood (1989-91) in fifth place on the career list with one block at North Dakota; current Utah State assistant Tarvish Felton (1996-99) is next up with 68.

Cal Hanks has blocked 34 shots this season, good for a tie for eighth on the SUU single-season list, along with Sherwood (91-92), Bryan Olson (83-84) and John Pierce (83-84). He has 35 career blocks, which ranks 10th on the list. He needs 10 to move up the career list but just one to move into a tie with Matt Hodgson (10-11) in seventh on the single-season list.

With seven blocks vs. Montana State the team set a school record with 139 rejections in a season, passing the 135 the 2010-11 squad blocked. After blocking 12 more last week the tally now stands at 151.

Cleaning The Glass:

  • The Thunderbirds have won the battle of the boards 19 times this season, including a 49-45 edge at North Dakota.
  • SUU has reeled in 40 or more caroms 13 times this season. Last year's team had a total of four 40-rebound games.
  • SUU pulled down a season-high 51 rebounds vs. San Diego Christian. The team's high mark vs. a Division I foe was 49, last Saturday at North Dakota.

Block Party:

  • As noted above, SUU's 151 blocks this season is a school record.
  • SUU averages 5.1 blocks per game, which ranks second in the Big Sky. The Thunderbirds rejected 12 against North Dakota the first time around, SUU's highest total since the team combined for 13 against Panhandle State on Dec. 14, 2010. The Thunderbirds were in double-digits against San Diego as well, when they blocked 10 shots.
  • Jayson Cheesman has had two five-block and one four-block games this season, with both five-block efforts coming on the road. He didn't take much time to break into the SUU record books. In his first game as a Thunderbird, at Gonzaga, he blocked five shots, which tied the sixth-highest single-game blocks total in SUU history. He swatted five more at Weber State last week. The four-block effort came at home against San Diego Christian.
  • Cal Hanks tied Cheesman in sixth place on that single-game list when he came off the bench to block five shots against North Dakota. Hanks has 25 blocks so far and needs eight to move into SUU's single-season top-10.
  • SUU has tallied five or more blocks in a game 17 times this season.

T-Bird Notes:

  • A.J. Hess scored a team-high 16 points at North Dakota. It was just the second time this season someone other than Jackson Stevenett or Damon Heuir led the team in scoring.
  • SUU teamed up to pull down 49 rebounds at North Dakota, the second-highest total of the season and the highest against a Division I foe.
  • The Thunderbirds committed a season-low seven turnovers at Northern Colorado. The previous low was nine, at Weber State on Feb. 9.
  • Southern Utah combined to dish out 15 assists at Northern Colorado the team's third-most on the season and second-highest total on the road. Jayson Cheesman had a career-best three dimes while Damon Heuir and A.J. Hess each dished out four.
  • SUU attempted just six free throws last week at Northern Colorado, tying the second-lowest total of the season. The T-Birds also shot just six the last time they played in the state of Colorado, at Denver on Dec. 21, and attempted just five at Montana on Jan. 17.
  • The Thunderbirds combined to go 10-of-17 from the free throw line against Montana, 58.8 percent, their worst performance from the line since they hit just 7-of-12 (.583) in the first meeting with Northern Colorado and their second-worst performance of the season.
  • Montana shot an even 50 percent from the floor (26-52), making the Griz the only SUU opponent to connect at a 50 percent or better rate in the Centrum this season.
  • Jackson Stevenett hit 4-of-4 free throws vs. Montana State. It was the eighth time this season he has been perfect from the line and the 15th time a Thunderbird has been perfect. He has hit 54-of-57 free throws over the last six games, including four perfect efforts (4-4 vs. MSU, 6-6 vs. Northridge, 7-7 at Idaho State and 9-9 at Portland State).
  • The Thunderbirds were plagued early in the season by turnovers but have had more than 13 just once in the last 10 games, including a then-season-low nine at Weber State, until giving it up 14 times vs. Montana State. They were back down to 10 vs. Montana, however, and had a new season-low with just seven at Northern Colorado.
  • Jayson Cheesman had pulled down seven or more rebounds in seven of the previous nine games - including nine, 10 and 11 in the three of the previous four - until corralling just three vs. Montana and two at UNC. He then had three in just six minutes at North Dakota.
  • Cheesman now has 182 rebounds this season and Jackson Stevenett has 180, marking the first time since the 2008-09 season that SUU has had two players with 150 or more rebounds. In '08-09 John Clifford pulled down 254 boards while Tyler Quinney finished with 155.
  • A.J. Hess hit 7-of-14 shots, 5-of-10 from 3-point range, to finish with a career-high 24 points at Eastern Washington. He doubled his previous career scoring high, 12 at Idaho State, with the effort.
  • SUU's 81-79 win at Idaho State was the team's first overtime game this season and thus Coach Nick Robinson's first win in overtime as a head coach. Both of the Thunderbird- Bengal games went down to the wire, with ISU winning 54-53 in Cedar City before SUU took the win in Pocatello.
  • SUU is 1-1 in overtime games this season, with the win at Idaho State and the loss at home vs. Montana.
  • Chris Nsenki dished out a personal-high four assists vs. Montana and tied his career high with 10 points at ISU, including a perfect 3-for-3 night from 3-point range.
  • Northern Arizona was probably happy to see the last of Heuir. The senior guard scored 30 points in the first match-up between SUU and NAU - the highest total in the Big Sky until NAU's Gabe Rogers poured in 35 vs. North Dakota on Jan. 26 - and he poured in another 27 last Saturday. In his two games against the Lumberjacks, Heuir hit 15-of-30 shots, 7-of-12 3-pointers and hit 20-of-24 free throws. He also averaged four rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals and blocked a shot against NAU.
  • Stevenett had posted double-figures in 23 straight games, including 12 games during the streak with 20 or more points, until North Dakota held him to seven last Saturday. Heuir had scored in double figures in 13 straight games until finishing with just three at Eastern Washington. He had tallied 14 or more points in each of the 12 and four 20-point-plus efforts during the streak.
  • Stevenett notched his third double-double of the season vs. NAU with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
  • Stevenett hit the 1,000 career points mark with 19 at Montana, which gave him exactly 1,000. He is just the 11th player in SUU history to break the 1,000 point mark and just the third to cross that threshold since Richard Barton finished his career with 1,419 points in 1993 (third on SUU's all-time list). Jeff Monaco finished his career in 2001 with 1,568 points (second) while Davis Baker finished his in 2010 with 1,205 (sixth at the time, now seventh).
  • The Thunderbirds have had just five players foul out of the 10 non-conference games (including two at TCU) but have had 20 foul out of the 18 Big Sky games. No one was disqualified at Northern Colorado, however.
  • SUU is now 9-0 all-time at home against Cal State Northridge after the BracketBuster win. In the team's brief BracketBuster life SUU went 1-1, with a loss at UC Riverside last year.
  • SUU is without Julian Scott, who was lost to the season in mid-January after suffering an injury. The team is also without Wade Collie, who was dismissed for violating team policies.

SUU Tournament Trivia: 

  • The Thunderbirds have advanced to their respective conference men's basketball tournaments 16 out of 17 years they have been a member of a basketball conference since moving to the Division I level in the 1987-88 season.
  • Southern Utah was 2-for-2 in earning tournament berths during its time in the short-lived American West Conference (1994-95 and 1995-96) and they claimed the tournament title both years.
  • The Thunderbirds advanced to the Summit League (ne. Mid-Continent Conference) tournament 14 times in 15 seasons, missing only in 2010 when the team finished ninth and out of the eight-team tourney.
  • Southern Utah earned an NCAA tournament berth after claiming the 2001 Mid-Con tournament championship. The Thunderbirds made their only NCAA tournament appearance that season when they drew a number 14 seed and wound up facing Boston College in the first round. Third-seeded BC pulled out a 68-65 win in that game after Justin Sant's 3-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out. The game was played at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y. That team was coached by Bill Evans, who is currently the head man at Idaho State.
  • During SUU's championship run in 2001 the Thunderbirds topped Western Illinois (66-53), Oral Roberts (73-62) and Valparaiso (62-59 for the championship).
  • Southern Utah's only other national tournament appearance came in 1977 when the Thunderbirds claimed the NAIA District VII championship and advanced to NAIA tournament in Kansas City, Mo. The Thunderbirds lost in the first round of that tournament as well, 99-89 to Southwestern Oklahoma. Current Montana assistant coach Kerry Rupp was the Thunderbirds' leading scorer and rebounder that season with averages of 16.6 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game.
  • While in the Summit League the Thunderbirds faced the same team in the first round of the tournament that they faced in the final regular-season game four times and went 1-3 in those games. In 1998 in their first year in the then-Mid-Con, the Thunderbirds finished the season with an 86-69 loss at Oral Roberts (which was also in its first season in the league), then lost a double-overtime decision to ORU in the first round of the tournament, 94-84. In 2003 the T-Birds ended the regular season with a 92-77 loss at Oakland but bounced back with a 66-55 win over the Grizzlies in the first round of the tournament. In 2008 SUU beat IPFW at home, 99-89 in the regular season finale', but lost to the Mastodons, 66-62 in the first round. And, in 2011, Oakland upended SUU 82-68 in Cedar City, then took an 82-66 win in the first round en route to a conference championship.