AT FIRST IMPULSE, Southern Utah University coach Bill Evans said playing games against instate schools is no more important than playing anyone else. "Absolutely not," he said.

Then he changed his mind. Quickly.When you're young and enthusiastic and trying to make a name for yourself, you do what every other up-and-coming program does: You start by making believers of your neighbors first. You schedule a lot of road games against bigger programs. You work your publicity people overtime. You phone up the newspapers and television stations and spell the names of your players nice and slow so they'll get it right. You patiently explain where your school is and how long it's been around.

So on second thought, Evans said maybe the instate games were more important. "It's important for our image," Evans backtracked. "People say, `Is it good for you?' No, it's not, because they all have very good basketball teams."

SUU completed the second phase of its three-part instate schedule, Saturday night at the Delta Center, meeting Utah State for the first time in history. It didn't go exactly as the Thunderbirds had hoped, as USU pulled away in the final five minutes for a 76-63 win.

"But it was a great college game. Didn't you think?" said Evans.

If not great, the game at least showed the Thunderbirds aren't interested in being embarrassed against their bigger neighbors.

That wasn't always the case. SUU lost by 46 points to BYU in the 1992 Cougar Classic, giving rise to speculation that the Cougars had accidentally scheduled the Cedar City Rotary Club.

The Thunderbirds' efforts to be accepted along with the other Division I-A Utah colleges took a pivotal turn this year when they managed to schedule three of the four existing powers - BYU, USU and Weber State. At least the powers that be were acknowledging there's someone out there south of the Marriott Center.

"We get more respect outside the state than at home," said sports information director Brett Jewkes. "We're the fifth school and we're so far away, people still think we're a junior college. Someone asked my brother (who works at USU) if we're I-A."

If the Thunderbirds are having a few identity problems, it's understandable. When SUU started out in 1897, it was known the Branch Normal School. Not exactly the kind of name that strikes fear into the hearts of prospective opponents. Classes were held in a Mormon ward building, which didn't promise much for the quality of basketball about to be played at the tiny school, either.

Through the years, SUU has battled the image of being an afterthought of the bigger instate schools. It operated as the Branch Agricultural College, an extension of Utah State, which may have worked in some aspects, but it certainly didn't do much for the school's feelings of independence. In 1969 it finally became a fully liberated Southern Utah State College.

For the past two decades, the school has been trying to create its own image, promoting its small class sizes, academic credentials and, of course, the quality of life. After much blustering and harranguing, SUSC became a full-fledged university in 1991, over the objections of the U. of Utah and USU. "They're afraid we're going to invent cold fusion down here," joked one school official.

An admissions counselor complained that the bigger schools "think we still ride around in covered wagons. We are out of sight, out of mind to the decisionmakers. It's a good thing we still have our fighting pioneer spirit or they would have buried us a long time ago."

Even after gaining university status, the school had identity problems. Most of the public and press referred to the school as Southern Utah State University - a term which rankled President Gerald R. Sherratt, a former administrator at USU. Consequently, the school launched a massive publicity campaign to get the correct name out: Southern Utah University.

"The President wanted the name Utah State off from the get-go," said Jewkes. "It never was Southern Utah State University."

Not surprisingly, the Thunderbird have gone about their business of gaining respect in basketball with a passion. They showed up at the annual Cougar Classic this year and stayed with BYU for three-quarters of the game before losing 82-67.

Saturday night against the Aggies they appeared poised to make a serious threat, cutting USU's lead to four with five minutes left. But soon the clock was running down and the Aggies were leading by 10 and SUU had no choice but to foul.

If the Thunderbirds haven't beaten anyone instate lately - they're 0-2 alltime against BYU, 0-1 against USU and 2-9 against Weber - they are at least succeeding in catching people's attention. "I'd like to get a little more attention," said Evans. "I'd like to beat them. Close only counts in horseshoes."

And with that the Thunderbirds were back to plotting their return to the northern part of the state, which includes a Jan. 3 game at Weber State. "I'd like (the other instate teams) to come down to Cedar City. I really would," said Evans.

Which may not happen anytime soon. But when they do, he at least may not have to send them a road map ahead of time.