BY MIKE SMITH
OXFORD, OH – Will Sullivan’s trey from the top of the key lit the pilot light and the Miami RedHawks warmed up in the second half to pull away from Southern Utah for a 76-63 win Sunday at Millett Hall.
After connecting on 40 percent from the field before intermission, Miami hit on 65 percent of its shots in the final period. Sullivan had just five points in the opening stanza, but three came with four seconds left. Instead of going to the locker room down one, the RedHawks held a 32-30 lead.
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“The first couple shots I took didn’t really feel that good off my hand,” Sullivan said. “I had a steal for a layup, and I think once you see the ball go in one time, it gives you a little pick me up. … I had a shot at the end (of the half). It came off my hand well (and) it felt good.”
Miami carried the momentum into play after intermission, with Sullivan continuing his contributions. He finished as the game’s high scorer, collecting 21 points on 7 of 9 from the field (6 of 8 on threes) and 1 of 2 from the line.
Sophomore guard Trey Kennedy led Southern Utah with 17 markers. A.J. Hess added 14 and Juwan Major chipped in 12 for a young Thunderbirds team that fell at Kansas State 98-68 in the opener for both teams Friday.
SUU won just two games last year, but showed signs of improvement during exhibition play despite having just two seniors on the roster. One played against Miami.
The RedHawks also have just one senior – Sullivan – and are going through the growing pains that come with a major influx of new players. The problems showed in last week’s 71-60 exhibition loss to Edinboro.
“We didn’t have the energy. We didn’t have the passion,” Sullivan set of the Edinboro experience, which he acknowledged was a wakeup call. “In Division I basketball, you need to have that passion and energy every single night if you want to be a good team.”
“We played team defense. We played team offense (and) got the shots we wanted. I think that’s the biggest step that we gook from Edinboro to today.
Southern Utah jumped out to an early 5-1 lead, but Miami caught and passed the visitors on a pair of Washington free throws at 15:32. With turnovers hurting both teams, neither could pull away. The score was tied seven times and the lead changed hands on 11 occasions.
Sherron Wilson’s jumper at 0:58, followed by a Kennedy layup with 39 seconds left in the period, SUU up 30-29. Sullivan’s 3-point goal with four seconds remaining pushed Miami in front for the break.
Miami shooters connected on four straight three-point attempts as part of a 15-5 RedHawk run to start the second stanza. That gave MU a double digit lead at 47-35.
The Thunderbirds edged to within five at 52-47 before Miami scored on three straight possessions. L.J. Livingston started it with a dunk. Sullivan then hit a three and Washington chipped in a layup.
“It helps a lot when you’ve got guys down low that area threat,” Sullivan said. “I had a lot of throw-back threes that were wide open.”
Aided by some Miami turnovers and missed free throws, SUU managed to close within 12 (71-59) following a dunk by A.J. Hess, but MU made 5 of 7 free throws down the stretch to seal the outcome.
“I don’t think I’ve won my first (regular season) game since my freshman year,” Sullivan said. The RedHawks, in fact, went nearly a month before registering their first victory last season. “It always feels good to get that first win and kind of get that weight off your shoulders. Now we can just head to practice and focus on the things that we need to work on.”
Miami will continue a somewhat unusual early season home stand Wednesday against Evansville (7 p.m. ET). The RedHawks will then host Liberty on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET) before heading to Mexico for Cancun Challenge play.