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HONOLULU -- Sophomore guard Jake Nielson scored 17 of his game-high 29 points in the second half to guide Southern Utah men's basketball team past McNeese State 68-59 Monday night at the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu and helping the Thunderbirds (1-2) pick up its first win of the season.
Nielson helped fuel a giant 25-6 SUU run by scoring 15 points in a crucial 11-minute stretch, in which the T-Birds overcame a 34-25 deficit at the 17:58 mark of the second half and reversed it into a 50-40 lead with 6:55 left in the game.
During the run, sophomore forward Matt Massey drained a 10-foot jump shot that gave SUU its first lead of the contest in the only lead change of the game.
Massey's jumper came at the midway point of the second half and gave the T-Birds a 39-37 lead and the team extended its lead with an 11-3 run after the shot.
The Cowboys closed within six points of SUU, but the T-Birds pulled away, leading by as many as 12 points before settling on a 9-point win.
I'm really excited for our young men," SUU head coach Roger Reid said in a post game interview with Power 91's Art Challis. "We had guys that came out and competed the whole time, especially on the defensive end and that started with Nielson. He came out and played great defense and smart defense."
Nielson finished the game with three steals and the T-Birds ended the game with seven total. SUU (1-2) committed 19 turnovers in the win, but only one in the final 16 minutes of the game.
The T-Birds also outrebounded McNeese State 39-23, converted 26 of 32 (81 percent) free attempts in the game and shot 48 percent (20-for-42) from the floor in the win.
Two T-Bird players finished the game with at least 20 points to lead the team to victory.
Nielson led all players with his career-best 29 points, while senior guard Davis Baker added 20 points (12-for 13 from the free throw line) for SUU.
Nielson, Baker and Massey also grabbed eight rebounds apiece.
Junior guard Ryan Brimley had 6 points for the T-Birds, including two important 3-point shots during the 25-6 run.
"That's why I recruited Brimley, he can shoot the 3 and he hit two big 3's today and that was very helpful," Reid said.
Massey returned from an injury at the 15:44 mark of the first half; he left favoring his right ankle after being fouled hard in the game.
McNeese State led by eight, 20-12 at the 10-minute mark of the first half. SUU stormed back on a 13-5 run, which was capped off with a free throw by Massey to tie the game at 25 apiece with 2:30 left before halftime.
The Cowboys were able to score the next five points afterward and went into the half leading 30-25.
McNeese State rolled out of halftime scoring two quick buckets, before Reid called a pivotal timeout at the 17:58 mark of the second half.
The T-Birds came out of the timeout and went on a game-turning 25-6 run in the next 11 minutes to erase a 9-point deficit and turn it into a 10-point surplus; leading the Cowboys 50-40 after Nielson drained a mid-range jump shot with 6:55 left in the game.
McNeese State chipped away the lead, getting within six points, but was unable to catch the T-Birds, who hung on for the nine-point win.
Four different Cowboy players ended the game with double-digit figures in scoring.
Junior guard Stephan Martin led with 17 points, while sophomore forward Patrick Richard finished with 16 points.
Senior guard Diego Kapelan and junior forward P.J. Alawoya both chipped in with 10 points apiece for McNeese State.
SUU will return to Cedar City with home matches against the University of the Southwest on Thursday and Wayland Baptist on Saturday.
Tip-off against the Mustangs is scheduled for 7 p.m. inside the Centrum Arena.