Idaho State never trailed but Southern Utah kept it close most of the game as the final margin equaled the Bengals’ largest lead.
The critical juncture of the game came midway through the second half. SUU had cut an 11-point deficit to five, at 39-34 on a pair of Trey Kennedy free throws with 9:28 to play, but ISU scored the next seven points on two free throws and a 3-pointer by Chris Hansen and a layup by Jeffery Solarin to move back up 46-34 with 8:17 to play.
The Bengals pushed the lead to 48-34 on a pair of Tomas Sanchez free throws at the 5:55 mark. A Race Parsons 3-pointer made it a 50-38 game with 4:42 to go and A.J. Hess brought SUU within 51-41 but Evann Hall answered with a traditional 3-point play to make it a 54-41 game and SUU never got back within 10.
“I thought we played very well defensively, I thought we did a nice job with our game plan, we did a good job playing hard on each possession but our downfall tonight was our offensive rebounding,” SUU Coach Nick Robinson said. “Our defense kept us in this game tonight and that’s a real positive step for us.”
The Thunderbirds held Idaho State – which was hitting 47.3 percent of its shots coming into the game – to 36 percent shooting. SUU also combined to block a season-high eight shots. Hanks had three of those while Jayson Cheesman and Casey Oliverson each had two and Jaren Jeffery had another. SUU converted 35.6 percent of its shots.
“In the first half they did a nice job of attacking and they did a good job getting some points in the paint but in the second half we did a much better job,” Robinson noted. “We got down but we battled back and got close but it wasn’t enough tonight.”
Southern Utah fell behind 7-0 at the outset of the game but pulled to within 14-12 on a Kennedy jumper. The Thunderbirds then saw ISU pull out to a 25-14 lead with 5:31 to go in the half but again battled back as Cheesman converted a 3-point play, Hess hit a 3-point shot and Oliverson scored inside with four seconds to go in the period to pull the Thunderbirds with 28-24 at the break.
SUU hit 10-of-21 shots in the first half, its best opening half since it hit 13-of-23 shots in the first period at North Dakota on Jan. 2. Cheesman, Kennedy and Oliverson each had five points to lead SUU at the break.
In addition to Hatchett, Hansen finished with 13 points and Sanches had 11 for the Bengals, who held a 46-27 rebounding edge, led by Solarin’s 13. Hess led SUU with five rebounds.
SUU dipped to 0-5 in Big Sky play and 1-13 overall while ISU moved to 3-2 in the conference and 6-8 overall.