GAME NOTES: With the proverbial monkey off their backs, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds now try to make it two wins in a row against Big Sky Conference competition as they host the Northern Colorado Bears in the regular-season finale at Centrum Arena.
Against one of the top teams in the league, the Thunderbirds put their 26-game losing streak on the line Thursday night and finally broke through against North Dakota in a 77-71 decision at home in Cedar City. The victory was the first for SUU since opening the campaign with a positive outcome against NAIA foe Arizona Christian.
In addition to Thursday's triumph being the first in conference this season, it was also the first versus another Division I foe since February of 2013.
While the Thunderbirds are still buried at the bottom of the Big Sky standings, UNC is stuck in a massive log-jam and in a tie with both Portland State and Eastern Washington at 10-9 for fifth place in the standings. With the conference taking only seven teams to the postseason tournament, a win would assure the Bears of making the cut.
However, Northern Colorado has put itself in a very precarious position by losing four straight outings. The latest setback took place on Tuesday night against North Dakota, 94-90, on the road.
In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, obviously the Bears won the first meeting of the season (91-55) in blowout fashion back in early January, which means UNC owns a 3-1 edge over SUU.
The Bears continue to lose steam even as they shoot 60.4 percent from the field and tally 90 points earlier this week in the four-point loss to North Dakota in Grand Forks. Derrick Barden led a list of four double-digit scorers with his 17 points, followed by Tevin Svihovec with 16, Tate Unruh 13 and reserve Tim Huskisson 10 points before fouling out.
Considering the Bears are averaging 74.7 ppg at the moment, their efforts on Tuesday night should have been good enough for the win, but they insisted on sending UND to the free-throw line over and over again. For the season, Barden leads the offense with 13.6 ppg, shooting 57.2 percent from the floor, but just 66.3 percent at the charity stripe, followed by Unruh (12.4 ppg) who seems to have a decent handle out on perimeter shooting with 39.8 percent from behind the 3-point line.
It was bound to happen sometime, but against a talented team such as North Dakota it was just not expected, as the Thunderbirds finally picked up that elusive first conference win of the season. Trey Kennedy came off the bench to tally 16 points, followed by Cal Hanks and Juwan Major with 13 points apiece and Casey Oliverson with 11 and eight boards. A.J. Hess was limited to just seven points, but contributed with 10 rebounds.
Kennedy, who has been coming off the bench of late, continues to pace SUU in scoring through 28 games with his 9.7 ppg, but he has done little to distinguish himself as a leader as he shoots only 39.8 percent from the floor and 23.6 percent behind the 3-point line. Hess checks in with another 9.4 ppg, connecting on a team-best 45 3-pointers, as the program generates a mere 59.2 ppg and continues to be outscored by a massive 15.6 ppg.
Now that the Thunderbirds have a much-needed win out of the way, the team can get back to business as usual and in all likelihood bow to a Northern Colorado squad that is in dire need of a victory tonight.
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