The Wildcats (12-7, 3-5) got back to winning ways on Saturday at the Teague Special Events Center by defeating the California Baptist Lancers (12-7, 2-4), 77-68.
The Wildcats lost five straight heading into Saturday against the Lancers but a 17-0 run to start the matchup led to the nine-point win. Coach Brette Tanner’s squad scored a season-high 36 points off of 23 turnovers and dished out 17 assists. The Wildcats are eighth in the Western Athletic Conference despite the previous five straight conference losses.
“I told them in film the other day that if you’ll play on the defensive end, let it go, play loose, and play ACU basketball,” Tanner said. “We talked to each other about what is ACU basketball, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. We all answered and we were all on the same page, and I said why aren’t we doing that, let’s go out there and do it. I don’t care if we win, we lose, but we’re going to play ACU basketball.”
After the loss to Seattle U on Thursday, Tanner said they needed to reinvent some things on offense. The offense was different against the Lancers as the Wildcats started off 8-11 from the field on the 17-0 run in the blink of an eye.
“We started the game with energy and we haven’t done that for a while. When you start that way it fuels everything which amounted to a 17 point lead,” Tanner said. “I hope we’ll play the rest of the year this way. We were way better today than we were on Thursday so I’m proud of them.”
Despite the 17 point deficit to start, the Lancers rallied back to make it a 33-25 lead for the Wildcats at halftime. The Wildcats scored 19 points off of 14 turnovers in the first half to spark the eight-point lead.
“It’s amazing what happens when we get out there and we guard and we turn people over and we go and we play loose offensively,” Tanner said. “Those are the same turnovers we were forcing the other night but we were pulling it back. It’s amazing when you start doing that because all of a sudden you are in your halfcourt offense, you start swinging the ball, and those shots start going down.”
The Lancers lost all three of their WAC matchups heading into Saturday by a combined 12 points. The loss to the Wildcats was the Lancers’ largest conference loss. Sophomore guard Tre Armstrong led the Lancers with 13 points and they outrebounded the Wildcats 39-26 but it wasn’t enough to seal their third WAC win.
The Wildcats defended the three much better against the Lancers only allowing the Lancers to shoot 25 percent from downtown. On the other side of the stat sheet, the Wildcats shot 43 percent on 9-21 shooting from the three-point line.
“The same team that lost those games here in the last two weeks is the same team that won those 11 straight,” Tanner said. “That’s always what I kept reminding them over the last couple days. We just knew if they score, they would have to earn everything.”
Junior forward Airion Simmons made his presence known for the Wildcats after missing last week with COVID and finished with 18 points on 7-9 shooting. A key aspect of the nine-point victory for the Wildcats was the 36 points off of 23 turnovers. The Wildcats still rank first in the NCAA in turnover margin (9.1) and turnovers forced (21.9) and are second in steals per game (11.3) behind Louisiana State University (11.9).
“I told them for the rest of the year if you’re not playing on the defensive end, then you’re going to come over to me and watch everybody else play,” Tanner said. “If you’re playing on the defensive end, as long as you’re playing with some passion and fire, then let it go and play loose.”
Coach Tanner and the Wildcats now head on the road to face the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros (6-13, 1-5) on Wednesday and the Lamar Cardinals on Saturday (2-17, 0-8). The Wildcats first face the Vaqueros for their first Wednesday night WAC game of the season at 7 p.m. at the UTRGV Fieldhouse, with the game airing live on ESPN+.