CEDAR CITY — The Southern Utah University men’s basketball team defeated Utah Tech 75-65 on Thursday night to pick up their first conference win of the season.

Southern Utah’s Dominique Ford moves the ball vs. Utah Tech, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 18, 2024 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

SUU guards Dominique Ford and Prophet Johnson scored 23 points apiece to lead the Thunderbirds, who improved to 6-11 overall and 1-5 in Western Athletic Conference play. More than half of the duo’s points came from the free throw line, with Johnson sinking a perfect 15-for-15 and Ford making 10-of-12. Overall, the Thunderbirds made 30-of-35 free throws, or 85.7%.

The first half of the game was evenly played. Utah Tech’s Tanner Christensen made a dunk to tie the score 28-28 with one minute left before halftime. SUU’s Chazz Hutchison then converted a conventional 3-point play to give the T-Birds a 31-28 advantage at halftime.

SUU kept a lead of 3-4 points for the first several minutes of the second half. With 10:21 remaining, Utah Tech forward Jaylen Searles made a free throw to cut the Trailblazers’ deficit to a single point, 45-44.

However, Ford drained back-to-back 3-pointers on SUU’s next two possessions, electrifying the crowd and igniting a 13-0 run that put the T-Birds ahead 58-44 with 7:45 remaining.

The closest the Trailblazers would get after that point was seven points — 66-59 with about 2:30 remaining. 

Leading Utah Tech’s balanced scoring effort was Searles, who scored 13 points, while teammates Christensen and Noa Gonsalves each added 12 and Caleb Stearman scored 10.

Utah Tech’s Caleb Stearman goes up for a dunk in the second half against Southern Utah, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 18, 2024 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

After Ford and Johnson’s tandem 23s, SUU’s next highest scorer was Zion Young with nine points. SUU center Parsa Fallah added eight points to go with his team-high 15 rebounds.

SUU head coach Rob Jeter called the victory a “great win for the fans and the community.” 

Jeter noted that it marked the T-Birds’ first win of the new year and of the WAC regular season.  

“It couldn’t have come against a better opponent, right?” Jeter said during the postgame press conference, where he was joined by Ford and Johnson.

“We’ve been battling, we’ve been seeing little small victories, but not victories to win games,” Jeter added. “To finally see, to hear that buzzer go off and feel good about it and know that we got a win … it’s easy to build off of that. But I have to give them credit. We’ve been building off tough losses.”

Added Ford: “We’ve been on the wrong side of too many close games.”

Johnson said of his perfect night at the free throw line, “We work on those in practice every day. You’ve got to make free throws, because it always comes down to those at crunch time.”

The game was played in front of a boisterous crowd of 3,563 fans, filling the America First Event Center to at least two-thirds capacity.

“I loved it,” Johnson said of the crowd’s energy. “It makes the game more intense. Anytime something happened, someone screamed and they just loved it. We felt more comfortable.”

And Jeter added: “It’s good to see that our fans enjoyed themselves. I know we did … we had some fun.”

The loss dropped Utah Tech to 7-10 overall, 3-3 in WAC play. The Trailblazers will get another shot at the T-Birds on Feb. 8 when the rivals face each other in St. George.

Thursday night also saw the rival schools’ women’s teams face off in St. George where the Trailblazers beat the Thunderbirds 78-71.

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