CEDAR CITY, Utah — Southern Utah triumphed over the visiting Red Storm from Dixie State 76-66 on Monday night in a back-and-forth game that saw seven ties and 11 lead changes.
The Thunderbirds were able to overcome the inexperience that is associated with being the fourth-youngest team in the nation and pull away at the end of the game for the 10-point victory.
Several new Thunderbirds turned in impressive performances in their Southern Utah debut including freshman guard Hailey Mandelko, who led the team with 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting and also handed out three assists.
Freshman center Brenna Gates provided a spark off the bench for SUU recording a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds in just 17 minutes of play.
"Our numbers are so low in practice that everyone is playing a ton,"?explained head coach JR Payne. "These players might be wearing a Thunderbird jersey in a game for the first time but they have gained a lot of experience and are not new to playing at this level."
There were times when the team's limited experience was apparent, such as turning the ball over 24 times, 16 of which came in the first half, but the Thunderbirds also showed composure as they shot nearly 50 percent from the floor, made 38 trips to the free-throw line and outrebounded the Red Storm 50-39.
The Dixie State offense kept pressure on SUU throughout the game but was unable to find its range from outside, ending the night just 3-of-21 from the 3-point line. Senior guard Sheila Adams led all scorers with 21 points but was 1-of-11 from behind the arc. Shane Vaifanua also had a strong outing for Dixie, grabbing nine boards to go along with her nine points.
The two teams played a highly contested opening half with neither side able to gain much of an advantage. Around the 11-minute mark sophomore forward Carli Moreland hit a short-range jumper to break a 14-14 tie and put SUU up by a basket. The T-Birds held onto a narrow lead for the next five minutes as the two sides traded baskets, but the Red Storm battled back to tie the game at 26. From that point, neither team was able to gain much of an advantage as the first period ended with the Thunderbirds leading 36-35.
Dixie State then opened the second half with a 13-5 run to seize the momentum and build up a seven-point lead. Southern Utah would rally with a run of their own outscoring the visitors 11-4 over the next four minutes to level the score at 52. From there, the T-Birds sought to take control, but a basket near the five-minute mark by Adams pulled the Red Storm within three. SUU was then able to run off seven unanswered points for its largest advantage of the game up to that point, and build a 67-60 lead. Another jumper by Adams Dixie would then cut the margin to five but SUU went on to score nine of the game's final 13 points to secure the 76-66 victory.
The difference in the game would prove to be the interior game as Southern Utah outscored Dixie State in the paint by a final tally of 46-26. In addition to Gates' 17, the T-Birds also got 11 points from Moreland and juniors Kimie Hawkins and Tayler Anderson each chipped in six more. The Red Storm put up 13 more field goals than the Thunderbirds in the contest, but only shot 38 percent from the floor.
Southern Utah will be back in action this Friday at 7 p.m. as they host Adams State in another exhibition match.