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T-Birds revved up about NCAAs

CEDAR CITY — Winning the Mid-Continent Conference basketball championship last week didn't do it for him.

Neither did the celebration four days later when the Southern Utah University Thunderbirds returned home with their conference trophy to a mass of SUU fans.

It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that SUU's Justin Sant finally realized the T-Birds were going to their first-ever NCAA basketball tournament.

"When you see your name up there and who you're going to play, it kind of really sunk in that we're really going to The Dance," Sant said after the T-Birds learned of their No. 14 seed and opponent, No. 10 Boston College, a No. 3 seed, to be played Thursday in Uniondale, N.Y.

The team, along with a smattering of fans, gathered at The Centrum Sunday afternoon for the official bid announced on CBS. It was only minutes into the show that T-Birds learned their fate.

After the East subregional upper-bracket pairings (a total of four games) for Greensboro, N.C., and the first two games for Uniondale were unveiled, the T-Birds saw their pairing with Boston College flash on the screen, and it was greeted with cheers from the team and crowd.

"The one good thing about going to New York is we won't have to play (No. 1) Stanford until the semifinals," SUU coach Bill Evans quipped.

But the T-Birds are in the same bracket as USC, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Creighton, Kentucky and Holy Cross in the East's subregional lower bracket, while Duke, a No. 1 seed, Monmouth, Georgia, Missouri, Utah State, Ohio State, UCLA and Hofstra are in the upper bracket.

Should the T-Birds win their opening-round matchup, they would face the winner of USC and Oklahoma Saturday.

As for SUU's opponent:

The Eagles (26-4, 13-3) won the Big East tournament championship and have a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 7, while the T-Birds' RPI is 95.

"They've probably never heard of us back in Boston, but that's all right," SUU's Dan Beus said. "We're going to go in just like it's Valpo or BYU or Utah. We've played some good teams and had quality wins."

The T-Birds, of course, didn't care who they played or where, they're just happy to be a part of it for the first time since moving up to Division I status 13 years ago.

"If you love basketball you're going to play anywhere," senior Fred House said. "We can go and play in an alley for all I care. I'm just excited to get out there."

But they are intending to do more than just show up.

"We're not going to pack one day of clothing and come home," SUU guard and Mid-Con player of the Year Jeff Monaco said. "We're going out there to win and hopefully be the Cinderella story of the tournament because there is always one every year, and it would be great for us to do it."

The T-Birds finished the year with a school-record 25 wins against only five losses. They were the Mid-Con regular season co-champs with Valparaiso, but the T-Birds won the conference tournament with victories over Western Illinois, Oral Roberts and Valpo last week in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to earn the automatic bid.

During the year the T-Birds had wins over Weber State and Utah, Montana and Idaho State, while dropping contests to Arizona State and BYU in addition to their three conference losses.

"There will be a lot of people there rooting for Boston College," Evans said. "But there will be a lot of people there rooting for the underdog — that's us."


E-MAIL: jhinton@desnews.com