The Wildcats (13-7, 4-5) earned their second-straight win by defeating the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros (6-14, 1-7) 87-85 in Edinburg on Wednesday night.
Junior forward Airion Simmons hit a three-point shot with nine seconds to play to win the game for his squad. With under two minutes to play, Simmons and the Wildcats were down by 12, 81-69. The Wildcats are now seventh in the Western Athletic Conference with the win.
“I’m not sure what just happened,” Tanner said. “The biggest thing is that the guys didn’t quit, they kept fighting till the end.”
The first half started off well as the Wildcats took a 33-20 lead with five minutes left to play. The Vaqueros then came roaring back and cut the 13-point lead to a 39-34 lead at the half. ACU pounced on the Vaqueros’ 16 turnovers and scored 22 points off their turnovers to give the Wildcats the edge. Neither team lit up the three-point line, as both shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc in the first half.
“We were really good defensively in the first half and we weren’t in the second half obviously,” Tanner said. “We took some chances in the second half, that’s what we do. To their credit, they made us pay. They slowly chipped away and all of a sudden I looked up, and they’re taking free throws to take the lead.”
Momentum started to swing in the second half as the Vaqueros went on a 14-4 in four minutes to take their first lead of the game, 57-56 with 9:20 to play. With 1:59 left on the clock after a 24-13 run since the 9:20 mark, the Vaqueros stretched their lead to 12, 81-69. However, the Vaqueros got in foul trouble as four players fouled out with the final player fouling out with 1:26 to play. The four combined for 50 of the Vaqueros 81 up to that point.
In the blink of an eye, the Wildcats cut the lead to one with 15 seconds to play after a 14-4 run. A critical UTRGV turnover on the baseline while inbounding gave the Wildcats a chance to take the lead.
With nine seconds left on the clock, senior guard Damien Daniels dished it to a wide-open Simmons, who drained the three-point shot to give his team the lead 87-85. The Wildcats hadn’t led since the Vaqueros went up 57-56 at the 9:20 mark. Simmons finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“Airion didn’t play very good tonight but I still wanted him on the floor at the end of the game, the dude’s a winner,” Tanner said. “That’s exactly why, no matter how good or bad he plays, when the game is on the line he’s going to make a play and he did tonight.”
The Vaqueros were unable to convert on their final possession as the Wildcats came out of Edinburg with the narrow victory.
“To our guys’ credit, they didn’t panic, they stayed in it, they scrapped and fought till the end,” Tanner said. “The staff was prepared, we knew we were going to foul, we started fouling early because we thought we had to extend the game a little bit, we had some turnovers that didn’t go in our favor, and then we made shots when we needed to.”
Before the Wildcats came back with 1:59 to play, they were 0-13 from beyond the arc in the second half. Then the Wildcats hit three straight threes and forced three Vaqueros turnovers to seal the win.
Five Wildcats scored in double digits with senior guards Coryon Mason and Mahki Morris each having 16. The Wildcats finished the game with 33 points off of 27 turnovers. Despite shooting 48.6 percent from the field in the first half, the Wildcats finished the second half shooting 36.4 percent and 18 percent from three. Senior guard Damien Daniels provided 15 points, four assists and three steals to help secure the crucial WAC road win for the Wildcats.
“Damien just played fearless,” Tanner said. “Without him tonight, we don’t even have a chance, he was special tonight.”
Now, ACU has a chance to get back to .500 in WAC play and secure their third straight conference win. They’ll have to do that against former Southland Conference foe, Lamar University, with their most recently lost being to the Tarleton State Texans, 57-62, on Thursday night in Beaumont.
The Wildcats and Cardinals will face off at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Beaumont, with the game streaming live on ESPN+.