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Southern Utah beat Montana the same way twice in three days

Ice at the free throw line has worked well for the Thunderbirds.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Utah at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s anything close to an absolute thus far in a strange college basketball season it’s that Montana doesn’t want to see Southern Utah at the free throw line late.

Improbably, the Thunderbirds broke the Grizzlies hearts in the same way twice over three days. On Saturday, SUU guard Nick Fleming sank a free throw with 1.3 seconds left to break a tie game and, after intentionally missing the second, gave the Thunderbirds their third win of the season.

That ending surely felt familiar to the teams, because it had just happened days before. On Thursday, it was SUU point guard John Knight III at the free throw line with two seconds left in a tie game. He would split the pair, giving the Thunderbirds their second win of the season after the Grizzlies missed a desperation heave.

It was SUU’s first win over Montana at home since 1999, and it would take just two days to do it again with the pandemic-induced scheduling quirk that saw the teams essentially playing a back-to-back in Cedar City. Fleming talked about what it felt like being at the line late in the follow up win.

“We’ve just been prepared for it, a lot of practice,” he said in an interview posted by the team after Saturday’s game. “It was just like normal for me.”

And that certainly seems the case for a team that has steeled itself to its best Big Sky start (2-0) since 2016-17. The Saturday win over Montana had some dramatic swings, as the Grizzlies went on a 13-0 run to close the first half, which extended to a 23-2 run overall after the break. That put the Thunderbirds in a 13-point hole early in the second half and while they would respond with a 12-0 run, still trailed by nine with just under seven minutes left.

A Dre Martin (19 points, 8 rebounds) jumper with 40 seconds left finally gave SUU the lead back before the frantic final sequence. Thunderbirds coach Todd Simon talked about his team’s clawing effort in a release.

“As a program, as you build the thing, you go from some lows, and then you start to hope to win, then you want to win, then now we’re at a stage with our program where we’re expecting to win,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said. “That’s what great teams do, they believe. We never really felt rattled, stuff wasn’t going our way and we weren’t playing a good brand of basketball there for those middle 15 minutes, but we didn’t get rattled.”

Overall, it’s composure that’s now twice vaulted the Thunderbirds past a Montana team picked to finish second in the Big Sky in the league’s preseason poll. It also gave the viewing public an early view into the type of “weekend series” story lines that may well emerge from the format many leagues have turned to to reduce travel and still get in games.