Western Athletic Conference play has now begun for the Wildcats (10-2, 1-0), who defeated the reigning WAC regular-season champions Utah Valley Wolverines (9-4, 0-1) in Orem, Utah on Thursday night, 80-76.
Wildcats head coach Brette Tanner and his team extended their win streak to ten with the win and have not lost since the double-overtime loss to the Texas A&M Aggies 81-80 on Nov. 12. Prior to the Wildcats, the Wolverines defeated the Brigham Young University Cougars and the Washington Huskies in non-conference play.
“I’m just proud of the fight these guys had,” Tanner said. “Down the stretch, a lot of things weren’t going our way. Honestly, I don’t think I did a very good job coaching the last four minutes but those guys had my back. I’m super proud of the team and any road win is a good win, so we’ll take it.”
The win secures the Wildcats its first Quadrant Two, ranked in the top 76-135 in the nation, win of the season. The Wolverines were ranked 77th in the nation while the Wildcats were ranked 83rd heading into Thursday night. ACU lost to Utah, a Quadrant Two test, and Texas A&M, a Quadrant One test earlier in the season.
The Wildcats hadn’t played away from the Teague Special Events Center since Nov. 16 in an overtime 80-71 win against the University of Texas-Arlington Mavericks.
After a buzzer-beater from Wolverines junior Blaze Nield, the Wildcats led 38-35 at halftime. The tenacious Wildcats defense turned the Wolverines over eight times in the first half to secure the three-point lead.
“You always worry with a play like that because when a team gets momentum like that they come out of the half and they just take it away and run away with it,” Tanner said. “They had all the momentum at halftime. I just walked in there and told them ‘Hey we executed what we wanted to run. There was only one second left when the ball came off the rim, they just made a great play. It is what it is.’”
The Wildcats forced 17 turnovers against the Wolverines while having six of their own. Heading into Utah Valley, the Wildcats were ranked first in the nation with a 10.4 turnover margin and forcing 23.82 turnovers per game.
“They’re really hard to turnover,” Tanner said. “We adjusted at halftime, we were trying to trap early and we did that because in the first half they were able to get loose with some threes, so we just told them ‘Hey we’re not trapping ball screens anymore. We’re just going to guard the ball, if we give him the screen, we give him the screen.’ I thought our guys executed that, they listened, they did exactly what we told them to, and they did it at a high level.”
The Wildcats were able to pull away in the second half with a 70-60 lead with 4:48 to play. However, the Wolverines cut the lead to two with two seconds to play before the Wildcats secured the win. The Wildcats led for 35 of the 40 minutes.
“Every guy we put on the floor we expect a street fight,” Tanner said. “That’s exactly what that last four minutes was. I didn’t do a great job of coaching those last four minutes.”
Junior Airion Simmons posted a career-high 21 points on 8-12 shooting despite missing part of the second half with a leg injury. Simmons also added four rebounds and two assists to his stat sheet. Another key Wildcat was sophomore Cameron Steele who posted 17 points, nine boards, four assists and two steals. Simmons and Steele contributed for 38 of ACU’s 80 points on the night.
“We definitely got better today,” Simmons said. “This was the first time probably all year that I had to guard a real big so it was very tough but came out with the dub. We played good defense, do what we do, and came out with the dub.”
Tanner, Simmons, and the Wildcats now flip the page for the 7-7 Dixie State Trailblazers on Saturday.
“Dixie State is the one team I haven’t been able to see a whole lot of,” Tanner said. “I do know we’re probably going to be seeing a lot of zone, which we haven’t seen a whole lot of this year so we’re going to have to really work on that tomorrow. But we know it’s a road game in conference, it’s going to be another street fight.”
Starting the new year against the Dixie State Trailblazers (7-7) is next for the Wildcats as they take on another new WAC foe in Saint George, Utah at Burns Arena at 7 p.m. on ESPN+.