SALT LAKE CITY — The first meeting between Southern Utah and Dixie State as Division I rivals had a little bit of everything.
Rim-rattling dunks? Check.
A 3-point contest? Double check.
Double-digit comebacks? This game had two of them.
The last one favored the Thunderbirds, though.
John Knight III had a game-high 22 points and five assists, and Aanen Moody added 15 points on five 3-pointers to help Southern Utah hand Dixie State its first loss of the season, 85-78, in front of a limited-capacity crowd at the America First Event Center in Cedar City.
Tevian Jones added 17 points, four rebounds and three assists for the Thunderbirds (5-1), and Ivan Mandunic supplied 10 points and eight rebounds for a home team that outrebounded the Trailblazers 46-32.
"We knew it was going to be a tough ball game," SUU coach Todd Simon told Pluto TV after his squad improved to 2-0 against in-state competition."They do a great job, are really well coached, and are a talented group. They did a lot of work on the offensive end against us, but luckily we were able to get one-and-dones when we made shots, and then played late with good composure."
Cameron Gooden scored 16 points with three rebounds to lead Dixie State (3-1), and Frank Staine added 13 points and 10 rebounds. Jacob Nicolds supplied 15 points, and Isaiah Pope had 9 points and three rebounds for the Trailblazers in their first game against the Thunderbirds since 1963.
Staine drained a pair of 3-pointers in the first four minutes to help the Trailblazers jump out to a double-digit lead early.
But Staine picked up his second foul midway through the first half, and as the Thunderbirds were mounting a comeback bid. Jones' 3-pointer sparked a 10-2 run that returned the lead to SUU with 6:23 to go in the half.
After trailing 13-4 early, SUU finished the half outscoring Dixie State 41-23, including an 11-2 run in the final four minutes capped by Knight's breakaway dunk to end the half up 45-36.
Knight had 10 points, three rebounds and two assists at the break, and Madunic added 7 points and seven boards at halftime.
Dixie State cut the lead as low as one with an 8-0 spurt around the midway mark of the second half, including Brock Gilbert's 3-pointer from the left elbow to pull within 61-58. The Thunderbirds shot just 14-of-22 from the free-throw line, including 9-of-16 in the second half, as the Trailblazers mounted a charge of their own.
👑 THE PEOPLE'S DUNK CHAMP 👑 pic.twitter.com/WWXuRcSNPx— SUU Men's Basketball (@SUUBasketball) December 18, 2020
"We've got a lot to clean up," Simon said. "We're still not where we want to be offensively. We have spurts where we're outstanding, and then spurts where we're not.
"We need to find some consistency. … Obviously, we didn't make free throws today at the level that we need to. But 17 assists, 18 offensive rebounds, those are things that we really emphasize work for us."
Pope scored 4-straight points to give Dixie State its first lead of the second half, 64-61, with 8:06 to play. Just like that, the host Thunderbirds' lead evaporated.
But Moody wouldn't let the lead stand, dropping back-to-back 3-pointers with 3:43 left to pace a 9-0 run and retake a 77-70 advantage before holding on for the win.
"He's trying to get his rhythm, been out for quite a while. But it's like riding a bike when he's shooting," Simon said of Moody. "He gets back in there, and that's what he does. He's as good a shooter in the entire country."
SUU hosts Bethesda College at 7 p.m. MT Friday before another game with the Flames on Monday prior to jumping back into Big Sky play, where the Thunderbirds are 2-0 with a sweep over Montana.
Dixie State hosts Bethesda on Saturday night at Burns Arena before a trip to top-rated Gonzaga on Tuesday, Dec. 29. The Trailblazers open Western Athletic Conference play Friday, Jan. 9 at home against league power New Mexico State.