After a 7-6 lead at the 17:18 mark of the first half, the 11-seed Troy Trojans (20-12, 10-6) of the Sun Belt Conference never led again as the six-seed Wildcats (24-10, 11-7) took the College Basketball Invitational opening round win 82-70 on Sunday night in Daytona Beach, Fl.
Senior guards Mahki Morris, Reggie Miller and Coryon Mason each scored over ten points while sophomore forward added 18 of his own. The three senior guards combined for 41 of ACU’s 82 on the night. Head coach Brette Tanner’s team held a 19-point lead at halftime, kept their feet on the gas in the second half and never looked back to take the 12 point win.
“We were actually able to practice in Orlando at Jaren Lewis’ old high school and we got to talk about some history but these guys showed up to work,” Tanner said. “I was nervous about the practice we would have because we had it at 8 in the morning after a long day of travel and those guys showed up and were pros. I had a feeling we were going to come out with some energy but I was nervous because you never know on the first day of a tournament.”
The nations best team in turnover margin, turnovers forced and steals per game scored 16 points off of 12 turnovers with eight steals and six Wildcat turnovers to take a 48-29 halftime lead. Their 48 points were their most in a half since the Wildcats scored 57 in a 112-41 win over Howard Payne on Dec. 19. Sophomore forward Cameron Steele lit up the Trojans defense for 13 in the first half. Steele and the Wildcats went on a 14-3 run to close the half with a commanding 19-point lead.
“We shot the ball really well and that helped but we were getting the shots we talked about getting against their defense,” Tanner said. “That was inside out threes so we were trying to penetrate with the bounce and get back out. I told them if we do that and touch paint to let it fly and we did that.”
Tanner’s defense continued to push as they finished the night with 27 points off of 20 turnovers. Despite Troy winning the second half 43-34, ACU held the Trojans scoreless from the 13:04 mark to the 8:19 mark and from the 6:05 mark to the 3:14 mark. The Wildcats finished the night with 30 bench points, 28 paint points, 18 assists, nine steals and a 33-32 rebounding win over their Sun Belt foes. Mason finished with 19 while Steele backed him up with 18.
“We wanted to spread them out, they had a huge size advantage on us so we wanted to spread them out and attack with the dribble,” Tanner said. “I think we were able to do that for the most part but I think we got a little stagnant for awhile and that’s a credit to them. They went zone in the second half and we played our zone offense which we didn’t execute very well. Once we started attacking the press, we settled in and started playing to win and not playing to lose and I think we did that down the stretch.”
Now the six-seed Wildcats play their second game of a potential four games in four days against the Ohio Bobcats (25-9, 14-6) of the Mid American Conference. Last season, the 13-seed Bobcats upset the four-seed Virginia Cavaliers in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament 62-58. The Bobcats then lost to the five-seed Creighton Bluejays 72-58 in the second round. On Sat., the Bobcats defeated the 14-seed Rice Owls 65-64 in their CBI opener.
“I’m excited I get to coach this group another day,” Tanner said. “We’ll take it one day at a time in a tournament setting like this but this has been such a fun group for me to coach all year. I didn’t want it to end so I’m glad it didn’t.”
The Wildcats and Bobcats tip off at 6:30 Monday night at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla. and will be streamed live on FloHoops.