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T-birds faltered in stretch

Team was just a few points from respectable record

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When Southern Utah's Steve Barnes was good this past season, the Thunderbirds were good. When he wasn't, they struggled.

When Southern Utah’s Steve Barnes was good this past season, the Thunderbirds were good. When he wasn’t, they struggled.

Garrett Davis, Associated Press

Through its first 15 games, the Southern Utah University men's basketball team was poised to have one of its best seasons in recent years.

The T-Birds were 10-5 — a mark they hadn't enjoyed since the 2001 season when they went to their one and only NCAA tournament — and the prospect of winning 20 games for only the third time since the 1991-92 seemed a real possibility.

In late January and early February the T-Birds, who were 15-8 overall and 5-3 in league play, won a season-best four games in a row, and encouragingly, they won three of those games by seven points or less.

"We thought we could make a run there at the end," SUU assistant coach Tarvish Felton said. "We had a big stretch where we had a bunch of road games, and it's always hard to win on the road, and we knew how difficult that was going to be."

Following the four-game winning streak, the T-Birds dropped five of their last six regular-season games — three by less than seven points.

"When you play close games it's a couple of plays that if they go your way you're winning six of seven instead of losing six of seven," Felton said. "From that standpoint it was frustrating."

The T-Birds finished 6-8 in Mid Continent Conference play, and they fell to IUPUI in the first round of the conference tournament to end the season on a three-game losing streak. It marked the seventh time in 10 years at the Mid Con tournament that the T-Birds lost in the opening round.

Southern Utah still posted a 16-14 record, snapping a string of five consecutive seasons without a winning record, but it wasn't enough to save the job of head coach Bill Evans, who was fired shortly after the loss to IUPUI.

"We were a pretty solid defensive team all year long, but we sometimes had troubles scoring," Felton said. "We didn't have a real post threat so we were playing with a bunch of guards so teams got out and pressured us and we weren't making shots."

The T-Birds, who led the nation in 3-point field goal percentage in 2005-06 at 42.9 percent, shot just 38.3 percent from 3-point range.

"Even last year's team that led the nation in 3-point shooting didn't have a real post threat but what they did have was a bunch of guys that could shoot the basketball and that drew the defense away from the basket. It opened up opportunities," Felton said.

Steve Barnes, a Mid-Con first teamer, led the T-Birds in scoring, assists and minutes played.

"When he played well we had opportunities to win ball games and if he didn't play well we sometime struggled," Felton said.

In drawing more attention from the defense, Barnes, who played 36.1 minutes a game, shot 44.6 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from the 3-point line. One year earlier he shot 50.6 percent from the field and 44.6 percent from the three-point line.

"This year we were one or two plays away from instead of being 6-8 in the league to being 9-5 and tied for second," Felton said

Barnes, who started all 30 games, averaged 12.9 points, 5.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds, while Justin Allen, the Mid Con Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 11 points and led the team with 36 steals.

Those two, along with Junior Abrahao and Dax Crum, are graduating, but Felton, who is now a part of Roger Reid's staff along with Ron Carling and Austin Ainge, likes what the team returns in Swaney Cooper, Jaques Wilson, Nurudeen Adepoju, Tate Sorenson and Orlando Greigo.

"We had a good year. We won 16 games and to win 16 games at Southern Utah is a pretty decent year. Just because of some of the limitations that we have," Felton said. "But it was disappointing because we thought we would have a much better year if we had done some things down the stretch. We didn't make the plays down the stretch to get over the hump."

2007-08 Projected starting lineup

G: Jaques Wilson


F: Tate Sorensen

F: Orlando Greigo

F: Swaney Cooper

E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com