By Joshua Parrott, Sports Writer
With seconds remaining in the first half of the men’s basketball season opener against Howard Payne, a defender inadvertently poked sophomore forward Jeff Johnson in the eye, leaving a small cut above his left eye.
Despite that small setback and some temporary pain, Johnson and the Wildcats maintained focus, pulling out an 81-75 squeaker against HPU and posting a blowout victory on the road against St. Edward’s, 120-78, before falling on the road against Panhandle State, 81-58.
The Wildcats, now 2-1 overall, are led by junior guard Rodney Lee, who leads the team in scoring at 25.3 points per game. Junior forward Tucker Pierson leads ACU on the glass, collecting almost eight rebounds per night. Pierson posted a double-double in the opener against HPU and is third on the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 points a night.
Lee, who shot as badly as he will all season in the win over HPU, said head coach Klint Pleasant motivated him to keep his head in the game despite missing 11 of 16 shots from the field.
“I don’t know what was wrong,” said Lee, who torched St. Edward’s four nights later for a career-high 38 points. “But coach told me to play strong and to play hard and not worry about my shot, so I focused on playing defense.”
Pleasant said the wins should be satisfying for a young, eager team unaccustomed to winning at the collegiate level.
“This team needed a taste of success,” Pleasant said. “Rod’s shot wasn’t going in against Howard Payne, but he still defended and played hard. I asked Calvin [Nite] to get 10 rebounds for me and he had nine by halftime. I saw how poor we had played and all of our mistakes were correctable.”
Johnson, a former Abilene High star, is second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points a contest and is starting to exhibit the aggressiveness and tenacity Pleasant has been looking for.
“In the three games so far this season, Jeff has played hard and he has played aggressive,” Pleasant said. “I coach him every second of every practice and every game.”
In news off the court, freshman post Stephen Story and junior college transfers Willie Broaden and Cliff Green have been suspended from play for the remainder of the Fall semester after breaking university rules. Both Story and Broaden have left school, while Green is still enrolled and attending classes and will be eligible to play Dec. 14 at home against Dallas Christian.
Pleasant said he is pleased to still have Green a part of his team.
“He’s got an unbelievable motor and our team really feeds off of his energy,” Pleasant said. “It will hurt not having him for the next two games, but he’s always around the office and helping out the coaches wherever he can. He stays late after practice and works on his shooting. He’s a good kid.”
The Wildcats head to Edmond, Okla., Thursday to take on Central Oklahoma, opening a two-game road trip against Lone Star Conference North Division opponents. They close out the weekend against Northeastern State on Saturay.
Lee said he’s looking forward to the road trip.
“Coaches expect us to win on the road, to be able to walk into someone else’s gym and win,” Lee said. “I can’t wait.”