Familiar faces match up under a Big Sky


CEDAR CITY, Utah — It is another crisp, snow-capped peak day in this wholesome city of 28,000 residents that serves as a tourism gateway to national parks Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon; the Utah Shakespeare Festival; and last and least, according to the Big Sky standings, the Southern Utah University men’s basketball team.

Inside Centrum Arena, two guys — one under each basket — are struggling with dry ice canisters as lights are dimmed for player introductions. The Centrum holds 5,300 spectators. There might be 1,000 on hand for Southern Utah’s game against Northern Arizona on Saturday. And there might not be.

Southern Utah is 4-22; Northern Arizona, 7-19.

Perhaps the dimming of the lights, and the dry ice canisters, and the protracted highlight reel on the scoreboard screen is overkill.

The Thunderbirds, which is Southern Utah’s nickname, are coached by 36-year-old Todd Simon, who was appointed UNLV’s interim coach after Dave Rice was heartlessly fired during the middle of last season.

 

The Lumberjacks, which is Northern Arizona’s nickname, are coached by 37-year-old Jack Murphy, who was student equipment manager at Durango High School when Al La Rocque was cutting down nets. Murphy also is the son-in-law of former UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood — the coaching matchup pitting Murphy against Simon is what brings me (and five other guys from Las Vegas) to the snow-capped peaks.

Al La Rocque drove 170.6 miles in a cold rain in a minivan supplied by Findlay Toyota, so named for Cliff Findlay, a chief benefactor of the UNLV athletic program for whom the prep school juggernaut Findlay Prep also is named. Todd Simon coached at Findlay. It seems everything about the NAU-SUU game has a local angle.

There also is a charm to being here.

About 20 minutes before tipoff, we are allowed to walk up the ramp despite not having passes. We are granted audiences with both coaches — walk right into the locker rooms! — who seem happy to see us. Had this been tried in the Big Ten, we surely would have been tackled by security guards with big forearms.

When the game tips, the guys under the baskets are still trying to get the dry ice canisters sorted out.

With Southern Utah (which had lost 11 straight) leading 15-4, two things become blatantly obvious: One, we are not witnessing a No. 15 seed, NCAA Tournament bracket-buster in the here and now. Two, Northern Arizona has a desperate need at point guard.

There are, however, myriad slam dunks of a spectacular variety — the Utah Jazz Dunk Team provides the halftime entertainment.

NAU goes on a run after halftime to get back into the game; SUU counters with one of its own to break it open again. A Utah Jazz Dunk Team basketball bounces into the 3-second lane, prompting an announcement that foreign objects are not allowed on the court.

An exception is made for Ivan Madunic, Southern Utah’s 6-foot-11-inch center from Croatia — he’s part of Todd Simon’s global recruiting initiative.

Southern beats Northern, 84-68.

Afterward, a nice chat is had with Torry and Tammy Martin, whose son, Jordyn, played at Palo Verde High en route to becoming NAU’s career leader in games played. Martin scored 20 points to lead the Lumberjacks. Travis Rice, Dave Rice’s son, kept NAU’s bench warm.

 

Our little group and Todd Simon are last to leave the arena. Simon says it might take a little time to get the T-Birds turned around, but that he loves raising a family in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks. Simon also says coaches at Southern Utah have been known to go their entire careers without having to lock their doors.

A cold rain is beginning to fall once again outside the Centrum Arena. But the air smells fresh, and it all seems so pure and simple in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks.

As we head south for the shimmer of bright lights, Jack Murphy and NAU go north toward the tall pines. He thought this was a game the Lumberjacks would win.

He hopes it won’t be snowing when they cross the dam at Glen Canyon.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.