MACOMB, Ill., — Southern Utah punched its ticket to the Summit League basketball tournament Saturday night, but it wasn't easy.
The Thunderbirds held off a determined Western Illinois squad, hitting eight of 10 free-throws in the final minute to pull out a 68-63 win over the Leathernecks. SUU improved to 10-17 overall and 6-10 in league play in eliminating WIU from tournament consideration as the Leathernecks dipped to 7-20 overall and 2-14 in conference play.
After trailing by as many as 11 points early in the second half Western Illinois battled back to take a 40-39 lead on a Jack Houpt 3-pointer with 12:04 to play. The Leathernecks pushed their advantage to 43-39 on a traditional 3-point play by Houpt at the 10:37 mark, then went up 49-42 on Jelani Johnson 3-pointer with 9:15 to play.
Southern Utah got a 3-pointer of its own from Jordan Weirick, however, and after a Tyson Koehler jumper from the top of the key SUU was back within 50-47. Ray Jones, Jr., brought the T-Birds within 50-48 with a free throw, then Jackson Stevenett converted a three point play to give SUU a 51-50 lead with 6:23 to play.
SUU scored the next five points on a Jake Nielson free throw, a Stevenett jumper from the right elbow and a Stevenett layup on a feed from Koehler, which put the T-birds up 56-50 with 4:35 to play.
Western Illinois cut the deficit to 60-57 with 2:17 to play, then the teams went through a series of missed shots and turnovers until Stevenett hit two free throws at the 44 second mark. That started the stretch of WIU sending SUU to the line, but the Thunderbirds converted them when they needed to in pulling out the win.
"Western Illinois is an excellent defensive team, and even though we were able to shoot a good percentage against them we didn't get a lot of shots up," SUU Coach Roger Reid said. "We got enough though. We were patient on the offensive end again, and we played well on the defensive end except for a few lapses, especially in the first half."
Western jumped out to a 5-0 lead and was up by as many as six, 14-8, after Matt Lander hit a three at the 13:43 mark but SUU scored the next seven points on a Damon Heuir jumper, a Ray Jones, Jr., layup on a fast break and a Heuir three that gave the T-birds their first lead of the game, 15-14.
It was back-and-forth through the remainder of the half but SUU scored the final four points of the period. Matt Hodgson scored on a dunk, then after a Western turnover Heuir rebounded his own miss with three seconds to play and put it back for a 27-22 Thunderbird lead at the break.
Stevenett scored 15 points to lead four Thunderbirds in double figures, with Kyle Davis, Jones and Heuir all finishing with 10. Jones also had team-highs of four assists and five rebounds for the Thunderbirds, who hit 20-of-32 shots (52.9 percent), including 11-of-15 in the second half.
Western Illinois, which was led by Lander's 26 points, hit 19-of-42 shots (45.2 percent) but just 7-of-21 in the first half. SUU also outrebounded the Leathernecks, 25-18.