GAME NOTES: The fight to earn a berth in next week's Big Sky Conference Tournament continues on Thursday night, as the Northern Colorado Bears host the Southern Utah Thunderbirds at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.
With Montana (17-1), Weber State (16-2) and North Dakota (11-8) all securing a spot in the seven-team tournament, one squad out of the remaining contenders -- Northern Colorado (9-10), Southern Utah (8-10), Montana State (8-10), Sacramento State (8-10) and Northern Arizona (8-10) -- will not receive an invite.
SUU has done itself no favors in recent weeks, as it has dropped five of its last six games to put itself in this position with just two games to play. The Thunderbirds fought hard against first-place Montana on Monday, but fell in overtime, 86-74.
This bout marks the final game of Northern Colorado's regular season, and it has the advantage of having a game in hand in the win column in this race, meaning a victory here would clinch a postseason berth. The Bears are fresh off back-to-back road wins against Eastern Washington (88-80 in OT) and Portland State (85-75).
SUU edged UNC in Cedar City back on Dec. 29 to tie the all-time series at 1-1.
After trailing for most of the game, SUU ripped off a 10-2 run late to take hold of a 67-64 lead in the final minute of regulation against Montana, but the Grizzlies drilled the game-tying 3-pointer with 17 seconds left and went on to dominate the extra session. Damon Heuir did all he could to lift his team to the upset victory, shooting 10-of-20 from the field for 29 points. Jackson Stevenett (16 points) and A.J. Hess (15 points) both hauled in seven rebounds. On the season, the Thunderbirds have not been especially strong at either end of the court, ranking seventh in both scoring offense (67.7 ppg) and scoring defense (72.4 ppg), but it benefits greatly from having the second- and third-best scorers in the Big Sky on their side. Stevenett nets 17.8 ppg on 46.4 percent shooting while also grabbing a team-best 6.1 rpg. Heuir (16.4 ppg) is much-less efficient with his field goal attempts (.381) and he has committed more turnovers (93) than he has assists (88).
Northern Colorado was able to cruise to a double-digit victory against Portland State last weekend thanks to an outstanding shooting night, as it made 32-of-60 from the field (.533), including 10-of-22 from 3-point range (.455). Tate Unruh was hot from beyond the arc (5-of-8) on his way to 23 points, while Derrick Barden tallied 18 points and eight assists. Tevin Svihovec and Paul Garnica also contributed to the strong effort with 10 points apiece. The Bears are oftentimes hindered by a lackluster scoring defense, which allows more than 71 ppg, but luckily it has the scoring prowess (71.2 ppg) to keep pace. Unruh is tied for the conference lead in 3-pointers made with 84 (at a 44.4 percent clip) and averages a team-high 13.6 ppg. Barden is one of the top forwards in the league, shooting 54.9 percent from the floor for 13.4 ppg to go with 9.0 rpg, while Svihovec brings 12.0 ppg and 3.3 apg to the table.
With Northern Colorado the hotter of the two teams, and SUU boasting a woeful 2-10 away record this season, all signs point to the Bears securing their position in next week's conference tournament.
Game Date and Time