The Wildcats (11-6, 2-4) lost to the Grand Canyon Lopes (13-2, 4-0) on Thursday night 96-68 at GCU Arena and the New Mexico State Aggies (15-2, 5-0) 77-63 on Saturday at the Pan American Center.
The losses are the fourth straight for the Wildcats as they have not won a Western Athletic Conference matchup since their 14 point New Year’s Day win at Dixie State. The six losses on the season for the Wildcats now exceed the total losses of last year’s Wildcats who went 24-5 before shocking the nation in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against the University of Texas, 53-52.
“We started getting ahead of ourselves, playing a little too fast, trying to catch back up, and that never works,” head coach Brette Tanner said. “You do this long enough and you’re going to be in games like that unfortunately and Thursday was one of them.”
Junior forward Airion Simmons, sophomore guard Logan McLaughlin, and junior forward Furaha Cadeaux de Dieu were unable to play this week due to COVID-19 protocol. Simmons had started every game this season and was coming off a career-high 22 points in the 65-63 loss to Sam Houston at home on Saturday.
The Wildcats led 13-9 early on Thursday but from the 14:48 mark in the first half when the Lopes took a 14-13 lead, the Wildcats never led again. The Lopes led 50-37 at halftime with Lopes junior guard Jovan Blacksher leading the way with 15 points in 17 first-half minutes. None of the nine different Wildcats had more than five first-half points after shooting 44 percent from the field. The Lopes shot 61 percent from the field and out-rebounded ACU 22-11 in the first half.
The second half saw transfer junior guard Stevie Smith score the final seven points for the Wildcats to obtain a career-high 14 points in 12 minutes, leading all Wildcats in the 28 point loss.
“Especially with his size, these last two games with Grand Canyon and New Mexico State, we’re playing against bigger, faster, stronger guys and Stevie’s the one guy we have with some length,” Tanner said. “He did well and I’m proud of him and we’re going to keep working with him.”
However, the Wildcats allowed 90 plus points in regulation for the first time since the 97-62 loss to Stephen F. Austin in the 2015-16 season. An issue for the Wildcats once again was the three-point defense. GCU shot 12-24 from the three-point line and is now the third straight opponent to shoot 45 percent or better from three against the Wildcats. Prior to these last three games, it only happened once.
“I just told them we have to be better,” Tanner said. “We’re not going to make any excuses. It’s not because we didn’t have players. We made a lot of mistakes in that game and we allowed them to stretch that game out.”
ACU finished Thursday night plus six in turnover margin, forcing 16 Lopes turnovers. ACU was able to turn defense to offense with those turnovers, scoring 18 off turnovers, but it wasn’t enough to defeat the reigning WAC Tournament Champions on Thursday.
“It’s a three-point game and we gave up four straight threes,” Tanner said. “The next thing you know, boom, the game’s out of hand. We got to look in the mirror and correct our mistakes.”
The road didn’t get any easier for the Wildcats as they faced the New Mexico State Aggies (15-2, 5-0) at 5 p.m. on Saturday in Las Cruces, New Mexico at the Pan American Center in a 14 point loss.
“We got some plusses with 11 straight wins and unfortunately we now have four straight losses,” Tanner said. “We have to find ourselves back on the winning track right where we should be.”
Aggies head coach Chris Jans has never lost a WAC home game in his five years at NMSU. The Aggies shot nearly 48 percent from the three-point line to be the fourth straight Wildcats opponent to shoot 45 percent or better from deep.
“I wanted to see us compete and not lay down because we got scratched in the face a couple of times on Thursday,” Tanner said. “I wanted to see how we responded and I think we responded the right way. I think we came out and we fought and we played ACU basketball.”
The Wildcats were down 10-2 in the first five minutes but rallied back to a 12-10 lead with 12:32 to play in the first half. However, the Aggies rallied back to a 28-24 halftime lead off of 15 points from redshirt junior Nebraska transfer guard Teddy Allen. Senior guard Mahki Morris led the way for the Wildcats with seven in the first half. Both teams shot below 36 percent from the field and each had seven turnovers in the first half.
“The game was right where we wanted it, it was a two-possession game,” Tanner said. “We talked about that before the game. If we could be within two or three possessions throughout the game then that’s right where we want them. We had a chance and we kept it there all game.”
In the second half, the Wildcats cut it to a three-point game with 14:30 to play and again at the 6:24 mark to make it a 55-52 lead for the Aggies. However, the Aggies pulled away after the 6:24 mark and sealed the win with six straight free throws.
“We just have to keep going,” Tanner said. “As long as we get better these next few games we’re going to be fine. We’re not ones that hang our hats. We didn’t plan on losing Thursday and we didn’t plan on losing tonight.”
Allen finished with 41 for the Aggies, a season-high and tying his career-high, plus scored the second-most points ever in the Pan American Center. Senior guard Coryon Mason led the Wildcats with 19 before fouling out in the 14 point loss. Mason has now scored double digits in three of the last four.
“He was making tough tough shots,” Tanner said. “It wasn’t like we were missing rotations and missing wide-open shots, I mean almost every basket he got he had a hand in his face, he was contested. We were back to playing ACU basketball, I think against Grand Canyon they were shooting uncontested shots, we just ran into a really good player tonight who made some plays.”
The Wildcats forced 13 turnovers and 12 points off those turnovers against the Aggies. The Aggies also had 13 turnovers and were the first team this season for the Wildcats to not have a positive turnover margin against. The Wildcats still hold the best turnover margin in the nation and turnovers forced per game. After the four straight conference losses, the Wildcats are now eighth out of 13 in the WAC.
“Just because we’ve lost a few games doesn’t mean people should choose not to come support this team,” Tanner said. “We’re in a really good league with really good teams but we’re a really good team as well. If we get people in the stands on Thursday, especially our students, if we can get a crowd, it’ll help us.”
Now the Wildcats head home to face the Seattle Redhawks (12-4, 3-0) at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Teague Special Events Center. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN+.