Sophomore forward Cameron Steele went off for a career-high 23 points as the Wildcats secured their 11th straight win and second Western Athletic Conference victory in a 64-50 win over Dixie State on Saturday night in Saint George, Utah.
Heading into Saturday night, head coach Brette Tanner and the Wildcats were ranked 65th out of 358 teams in the NET rankings, the highest ever ranking for the program. Last year’s Wildcats squad ranked 74th in NET rankings. The NET measures the quality of wins and losses for programs throughout their respective seasons. The Wildcats are ranked higher than prominent Div. I programs like Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Memphis, and Louisville.
“It’s good for you guys but it doesn’t mean a whole lot to us because it changes without even playing a game the next day,” Tanner said. “It’s all based on opponents, who you’ve played, what their record is, and all that kind of stuff. There’s some value to it. You want to be high at the end of the year.
Against the Trailblazers the Wildcats met their team goal of forcing 20 turnovers with 27 forced in the 14-point win. The Wildcats turned defense to offense and scored 27 off 27 turnovers. ACU finished the grudge match plus 14 in the turnover margin to continue their dominance as the best turnover margin team in the nation. Dixie State (7-8, 0-2) was predicted to finish 12th in the WAC out of 13.
“There’s no night off in the WAC, every single night is going to be a challenge,” Tanner said. “Our goal is to split every road swing and we were able to get greedy on this one and steal both, but we got to protect home court or it means nothing.”
To start the night, Tanner and the Wildcats got off to a quick 16-2 run to punch the Trailblazers with 13:05 remaining in the half. After the run, the Blazers rallied back on an 8-0 run to make the game 16-10. The momentum continued to swing each way but the Wildcats led at half 31-17.
“We can’t relax,” Tanner said. “I think part of that was that we came out ready to play, we can’t overlook these guys. I think that’s why we got out to a 16-2 lead. Our defense was really good.”
Sophomore forward Cameron Steele went off for a career-high 19 points on 8 of 11 shooting in the first half against the Trailblazers. Steele also added seven boards to his stat sheet in 16 minutes in the first half. The young forward out of Excelsior, Minnesota finished the night with 23 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes. Against the Wolverines on Thursday night Steele contributed 17 points and nine boards.
“He just saved us on this trip offensively,” Tanner said. “Just the fact he was able to score inside is something we haven’t had all year. I think his confidence is growing, it’s just got to continue. He’s not 100 percent where he needs to be yet, but he’s getting a lot closer.”
On the other end of the floor in the first half, the Wildcats defense thwarted the Trailblazers to 17 points. The Trailblazers shot 0-8 from the three-point line in the first half. The Wildcats defense ranked fourth in the WAC in three-point defense prior to Saturday at 30.1 percent.
“We played hard but execution wise we weren’t as good,” Tanner said. “I think the guys were locked into that but I think we got that big lead and we thought ‘Okay we can kind of pump the brakes a little bit and relax.’ You can’t do that in conference play.”
The second half saw each team throw punches but it wasn’t until the 11:32 mark as the Wildcats extended their lead to 15 that sealed the 14 point win. The first half ended 31-17 while the second half ended 33-33. Tanner said the 27 points off of 27 turnovers and plus 14 turnover margin made the difference on Saturday night.
“That’s ACU basketball,” Tanner said. “I think the stat line looks more like an ACU stat line. It didn’t feel like that kind of game.”
Tanner said after Thursday’s win at Utah Valley that he hadn’t watched much on Dixie State leading up to their four-point win at UVU.
“I thought they were going to zone us a whole lot and they really didn’t,” Tanner said. “We focused all of our attention yesterday on their zone offense. They probably zoned us maybe eight to ten possessions and that was it. That’s on me, that’s not on them.”
After two games in three days and driving through a blizzard in Utah, the Wildcats get a few days off to reset before facing Stephen F. Austin next Thursday at home. Tanner said he didn’t think his team got better tonight despite the 14 point victory and is looking forward to facing a familiar opponent in SFA.
“I’m just proud of these guys,” Tanner said. “This was a tough and grueling trip. Crazy tough travel, something we’ve never had to go through before and I imagine that’s going to be how the WAC is, but at the end of the day, I’m just glad they pulled it out.”
After the Utah trip, the Wildcats now have a five-day break before facing the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (8-4, 0-0) next Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Teague Special Events Center. The matchup is the first WAC contest for the Lumberjacks due to COVID-19 protocols and will be streamed live on ESPN+.