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Dance debut: SUU avenges last year's loss, earns automatic NCAA berth

Southern Utah 62, Valparaiso 59

Southern Utah University seniors Fred House and Jeff Monaco were forced to relive the nightmare of losing to Valparaiso in last year's Mid-Continent Conference championship game, when the coaching staff made the Thunderbirds watch the tape again Tuesday night before this year's tournament finale.

They saw themselves lose a halftime lead.

They saw the Crusaders cutting down the nets.

They saw Valparaiso celebrate its seventh consecutive conference title and sixth straight NCAA tournament bid.

It was at that point, they decided enough was enough.

"We had a nasty taste in our mouths," House said after the T-Birds wrapped up their first MCC title and the school's first-ever NCAA bid Tuesday night with a 62-59 victory over Valparaiso in Fort Wayne, Ind. "The coaches made us watch the game. It was so emotional it made us mad."

Monaco agreed.

"Everybody got mad, and in the locker room were so pumped and we went out and did it," Monaco, the MCC Player of the Year, said.

Moving to Division I status in 1988, Southern Utah earned a first NCAA tournament bid in its 13th season. The T-Birds (25-5) beat Western Illinois and Oral Roberts earlier in the tournament to get to the finals.

Last year, the T-Birds were just 20 minutes away from making their first NCAA appearance when they held the halftime lead, but they couldn't sustain it against these same Crusaders — and for a minute, it appeared the same thing was going to happen again.

SUU led by 12 points at the midway point Tuesday, eventually led by as many as 15 before Valparaiso began its crusade for another conference title.

Valpo's Lubos Barton exploded for all of his 22 points in the second half, and the Crusaders took their first lead with 8:49 left on a basket by Raitis Grafs.

But Monaco, who played all 40 minutes, scored eight straight points — first, a two-pointer, a two-and-one conversion following a defensive rebound and spectacular coast-to-coast drive. Then, after the Crusaders fought back to tie the score at 53-53, he buried another 3-pointer to give the T-Birds the lead for good at 56-53 with under four minutes to go.

"I had a rough tournament. I was the player of the year and I hadn't shown it yet," Monaco said. "At that time we needed a big play, and I saw the opportunity on the fast break, and it happened to fall my way."

House followed Monaco's three with one of his own and the T-Birds led by six at 59-53.

Valparaiso (24-8), trailing 60-59, had a chance to win the game with less than 10 seconds left, but House came up with a big steal and then knocked down a pair of foul pitches to put the game away.

"We knew they were going to make a run, but we didn't know when," House said. "When they did, we were ready and we knocked down some shots."

"He (Monaco) and Fred played like all-conference guys," Nine-year SUU coach Bill Evans said. "They both came up with big plays and that's what they are supposed to do. They have been doing that all year."

The T-Birds, the MCC regular season co-champs, will find out who and where they will play during the NCAA Selection Show at Sunday 4:30 p.m. on CBS.

"I don't know if I can come up with a word to describe how we feel in a situation like this," Evans said. "It's a neat thing for the little guys — the underdog."

With the victory, the T-Birds won a school-record 25 games and have won seven straight and 13 of their last 14. Their last loss was at Valpo during the regular season.

"We have nothing to lose (in the NCAAs). Tonight we had something to lose," Monaco said. "Now the bigger teams have to worry about us. . . . They have the pressure on them."

House finished with a game-high 24 points, and Monaco had 17. Dan Beus, who was named to the all-tournament team along with House and Monaco, gave the T-Birds a big boost by scoring 11 of their first 15 points when the T-Birds led at one point, 9-0.


E-MAIL: jhinton@desnews.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.