On Friday night, in the WAC semifinals, the Southern Utah T-Birds found themselves trailing by 23 points.
Trey Woodbury had just hit another 3-pointer to give Utah Valley a 59-36 lead with 15:42 to play.
It was around that point I received a text message from a friend of mine.
“UVU is just a better basketball team tonight,” the message read.
As I sat on press row, having seen the T-Birds in person multiple times this season, my response was pretty simple.
“It’s not over yet. SUU can get going in a hurry and scores in bunches. Still a long way to go.”
As I sent that text message, SUU guard Tevian Jones was completing a 3-point play.
It was quite the exchange.
But, my response of Friday’s semifinal not being over with 15:42 to play and Utah Valley leading by 23 was pretty accurate.
Some people just watch the ball game. There isn’t a ton of research on a team, or understanding the make up of a squad. My friend who I was interacting with knows the T-Birds and perhaps it was a reverse psychology moment for him.
Whatever it was, a response I got about an hour after that initial exchange will resonate with me for many days.
“I’m never doubting you again.”
From the vantage point of press row, the Southern Utah bench was right in front of me. During the media timeout with 15:35 to play, you could hear the SUU players talking away.
“We’re not losing this game.” “Let’s go get it.” “It’s not over.”
The look on Harrison Butler’s face coming out of that timeout said it all. The T-Birds were not going to go without a fight.
You could see it all over Butler’s face. Then, the full court pressure ramped up. Turnovers were being forced. Rushed shots. Utah Valley head coach Mark Madsen had to use too many timeouts earlier than he would have liked.
The pressure was starting to get to the Wolverines.
Harrison Butler was the catalyst for the T-Birds. From putting pressure on the ball to backing down a defender, drawing a foul or hitting a bucket.
As a college basketball fan, it was good to see that Friday’s semifinal might turn into a ball game. However, as a Utah Valley alum who bleeds green, I knew in the pit of my stomach that Utah Valley was in trouble.
You see, Southern Utah has a roster filled with veterans. Guys that have been in the program 3-4 years. Maizen Fausett has been in Cedar City for like 10 years. Harrison Butler has been in Cedar City for seven. Tevian Jones has been around for 9.
Okay, not so much. But, with five Seniors who have done nothing but win since coming to Southern Utah, this was not how their season and collegiate careers were going to end.
As the T-Birds began to nibble away at Utah Valley’s lead, it became even more obvious. Jason Spurgin’s high basketball I.Q. Todd Simon’s adjustment to go smaller. Cam Healy’s ability to knock down an outside shot.
It all came together.
The most important moment of the game came with 10:11 to play. Harrison Butler just hit a driving layup to cut the deficit to 14. However, after Utah Valley got the ball inbounds, Justin Harmon threw it right into the hands of Cam Healy. The savvy sharpshooter took one dribble forward and, in rhythm, knocked down a 3-pointer.
In the span of 14 seconds, the T-Birds cut a 16-point lead to 11.
However, Utah Valley was able to break the press following the 3-pointer. Aziz Bandaogo finished the press break with an alley-oop to push the lead back to 13. Tim Fuller’s layup one possession later gave Utah Valley a 15-point lead with 8:57 to play.
After Cam Healy and Trey Woodbury traded 3-pointers, Tim Fuller hit a pair of free throws to push the lead back to 17.
As I sat next to my good friend Bill Harty on press row, I was continuously saying throughout the game, Tevian Jones is going to come alive. If that happens, Utah Valley will be in more trouble.
Jones hit a step back 3-pointer with 6:26 to play. To say that sparked the T-Birds might be an understatement. The T-Birds trailed by 13 at that point.
I don’t even know what we witnessed from that point on.
There were driving layups and dunks by Dee Barnes. Harrison Butler hit layups and a 3-pointer.
Utah Valley was 13-13 from the free throw line in the second half up to that point.
It was simply entertaining from a competitive standpoint.
But, when Le’Tre Darthard fouled Tevian Jones on a 3-point attempt with 3:58 to play, the look on the faces of the T-Birds coming back onto the floor was one of confidence and focus.
Jones knocked down all three free throws, changing the game for good.
Blaze Nield’s stop at the free throw line began a bad string of empty trips to the charity stripe for the Wolverines.
After Nield hit one of two free throws, Utah Valley missed its next six free throw attempts. By the time Le’Tre Darthard broke that string of missed free throws, Southern Utah had cut the lead to just one with 12 seconds to play.
In a game with a 3-point lead, do you foul leading by 3-points or play it out? On the first occasion, Utah Valley chose to foul leading by three. Cam Healy made both free throws on that first occasion.
On the second occasion, Utah Valley, for whatever reason, couldn’t foul quickly enough. By the time Le’Tre Darthard fouled Tevian Jones, it was too late. Jones had already released a shot from 3-point range.
All you had to do if you were looking elsewhere was use your ears to hear the roar that took place with four seconds to play.
Tevian Jones had squared up his shoulders and hit a 3-pointer while being fouled. The best possible thing that could have happened for Southern Utah. Jones then hit the free throw to give the T-Birds an 89-88 lead.
Thing is, Utah Valley still had a chance. The Wolverines nearly had a 5-second call before Trey Woodbury got the ball into Tahj Small.
Small then raced up the floor and found a streaking Justin Harmon who was wide open. Harmon’s layup was a little too hard and the epic comeback or epic collapse, as some may call it, was complete.
Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon referred to it as a ‘great college basketball game.’
Utah Valley head coach put responsibility of the loss on himself.
Five seniors who have had arguably the best 3-4-year stretch in Southern Utah basketball history did not want to go home on Friday night.
“It summarizes these guys’ whole career,” Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon said. “It’s just a ‘never say die’ mentality.’ The absolute will to win. Just unbelievable confidence. We just felt like we were going to the whole time.”
Yes, the T-Birds someone escaped…once again. Todd Simon’s veteran group stole the hearts of Utah Tech on Thursday. And on Friday, that same group tore the hearts out of Utah Valley fans everywhere.
I may be unbiased in the content I put out regarding this conference. But, sometimes, like Friday night, my heart can get torn out.
Harrison Butler, Tevian Jones and Southern Utah will play for a WAC title on Saturday. And, as a Utah Valley alum, it hurts to say that. As a college basketball connoisseur, it doesn’t hurt to say that I had a front row seat to one of the craziest finishes ever in college basketball.