After one point games that saw ACU at 1-1 to start conference play, the Wildcats returned home to pick up a win against Northwestern State to move to 2-1 in conference and 7-9 overall.
In one of the more exciting match ups of the year, emotions were high in a game that was closer than the 87-72 final score suggested. Although there was just one lead change in the game, the Demons fought back for a lively second half of basketball.
The Wildcats led 40-31 at halftime before the Northwestern State offense came to life. The Demons shot 38 percent in the first half, but matched the Wildcats blow-for-blow to start the second, on way to a 50 percent shooting second half. Sophomore guard Devonte Hall came out hot for the Demons after the break and scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half.
For ACU, senior guard Parker Wentz was the equalizer, scoring 10 points in the first eight minutes of the second half, with two big shots from beyond the arc.
“That’s who Parker is, that’s what he does for this team, he’s that veteran leader who knows when to take his shot and when to be smart,” head coach Joe Golding said.
The Wildcats proved that they can receive significant contributions from up and down their roster.
After Wentz cooled off from his hot shooting start, the bench picked things up. Sophomore guard Isaiah Tripp and freshman forward Hayden Farquhar sparked the stagnant ACU offense after the Demons had cut the lead to 61-55 with 9:47 left to play. Farquhar hit a three at the top of the arc to push the lead to nine, followed by a layup and a foul by Tripp on their next possession.
The duo of Tripp and Farquhar continued to keep ACU out in front. Tripp hit a jump shot to make it 71-62. A few minutes later, Farquhar would convert a layup on one end of the court, and then stole the ball on the Demons next possession with a diving save to keep the ball in bounds. Freshman Jaylen Franklin got the ball to Tripp who was at the end of the court who sank the layup while taking the foul from tightly contested defense.
Then things got chippy.
After the play, Tripp and junior guard Sabri Thompson were both whistled for technical fouls after initial shoving between the two following the play. Tensions were high as the score was 73-64 ACU before the foul, and after exchanging free throws, stood at 78-66 with under four minutes to play.
Senior guard Jalen Little and Hall began to go directly at each other, as the two raised the intensity of the game on an emotional level. The back-and-forth antics lasted for a few minutes, but were enough to get the ACU faithful excited.
Franklin, who had gotten off to a strong start with 11 points in the first half, led ACU to the victory from there. In the final three and a half minutes, Franklin went 6-7 from the free throw line to secure the win for the Wildcats. He finished with a team-high 20 points, five rebounds, three assists and was 12-16 from the charity stripe.
“Jaylen has really been special this year, but what we’re getting him to work on is growing up and becoming that closer that we think he can be in the future,” Golding said. “Tonight, he knocked down free throws for us to close out the game and that’s what we needed. We want him to know that we have confidence in him.”
Freshman forward Jaren Lewis had his hands full for most of the game, trying to slow down the 11th leading scorer in the nation in junior guard Zeek Woodley. Most of Woodley’s damage came from the free throw line, sinking 13-14 attempts on way to a 26-point outing. Lewis snagged a career-high 13 rebounds for ACU to go along with eight points.
“He’s (Woodley) a tough match up because he’s so athletic,” Golding said. “He can play the perimeter or even the post, being 6-foot-3. I though Jaren’s length really bothered him tonight. He forced him into a lot of tough jump shots and didn’t really let him get to the rim.”
Tripp finished with a career-high 12 points and was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line. As a team, the Wildcats made 29-35 attempts, while the Demons, one of the top free throw shooting teams in the country, sank 21-26. Farquhar recorded 10 points and four rebounds off the bench in 15 minutes of action.
Little, making his first start since he injured his MCL against New Hampshire on Dec. 3, finished with a career-high 11 assists and a single turnover.
Northwestern State forward Ishmael Lane kept the Demons in the game early in the first half, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the opening frame. After a layup from Lewis made it 10-9 ACU after five minutes of play, the Wildcats ripped off a 15-4 run to make it 25-13 halfway through the half. The Wildcats started off the game 3-5 from deep, and were powered by Wentz and Farquhar during the run.
The Wildcats will set their eyes to Southland Conference tournament champions Stephen F. Austin on the road in Nacogdoches.