Senior guard Mahki Morris scores a career-high 22 points to lead the six-seed Wildcats (22-9, 13-7) to knock off their Texas rivals in three-seed Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (22-9, 14-5) on Thursday night 76-62 in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
SFA head coach Kyle Keller’s team defeated the Wildcats 64-58 at the Teague Center on Jan. 8 and 73-71 at the William R Johnson Coliseum on Feb. 26. Keller’s squad was on a ten-game win streak heading into the quarterfinals matchup. Regardless of their prominence as of late, the Wildcats came out blazing and ending on a 12-1 run to end the half. Head coach Brette Tanner spoiled his former school’s first Western Athletic Conference Tournament run, shooting over 53 percent from the field and nearly 47 percent from three. Tanner’s defense held the Lumberjacks to 35 percent from the field and below 28 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s a big win for our program at Abilene Christian,” Tanner said. “We can’t play tomorrow unless we win tonight and we keep talking about that. They took care of their business tonight.”
The Wildcats were in a tight game with their rivals until they finished the half on a 12-1 run in the final four and a half minutes. Tanner’s defense put together nine points off of 11 to’s and shot over 54 percent from the field and 56 percent from beyond the arc. SFA was forced into shooting 42 percent from the field and 43 percent from the three-point line.
ACU, who’s 12th in the WAC in rebounds per game, crashed the boards to win the battle 15-11 at half. Heading into Thursday, the Wildcats were eighth in the WAC in three-point percentage and sixth in field goal percentage. SFA ranked first from the field and fourth from three. Senior guards Mahki Morris and Coryon Mason posted 11 and ten respectfully in the half.
“They made us have a chip on our shoulder to know that we can be beat on any given night,” Mason said. “So we came locked in and played together.”
The second half saw the Wildcats take their largest lead, 59-39 with 12:51 remaining. With roughly ten minutes to play, SFA decided to play a full court press which ended up in a quick 8-0 run for the Lumberjacks. It was too little too late for the Lumberjacks as sophomore forward Cameron Steele slammed home the dagger with 1:12 remaining.
“We never know who’s going to bring it on a given night, these guys are super connected, you can see the way they fly around defensively and they play for each other,” Tanner said. “I’m letting these guys do their thing, it’s a special group that I’m enjoying watching right now.”
In the second half, the Wildcats continued to shoot lights out with Morris scoring his 22nd point on a layup at the 4:56 mark, a new career high. Defensively, Tanner’s defense took seven charges against SFA after taking eight on Wed. night against Utah Valley.
“ACU basketball is really about defense,” Morris said. “I wasn’t really worried about shots going in because I knew that they would start going in for me.”
For the Lumberjacks, their season comes to a close after a remarkable stretch of ten wins before the quarter finals loss to the Wildcats to end their year. Senior forward Gavin Kensmil, a WAC First Team selection, ends his time at SFA with a career record of 66-17 in a Lumberjacks uniform. Head coach Kyle Keller said he was proud of the fight he saw in his team this season despite facing adversity on Thursday.
“Kensmil’s won us a lot of games, it’s not his responsibility,” Keller said. “Obviously we weren’t as prepared as we needed to be tonight. We had every advantage in the world not playing. Every loss is on me, I didn’t do a good job of getting these guys ready and it’s my responsibility to have them ready.”
The Wildcats live to see another day in Vegas to take on the two-seed Seattle Redhawks (23-8, 14-4) tomorrow at 8:30 pacific and 10:30 central at the Orleans Arena. The Redhawks are yet to play in WAC Vegas having split a three-way tie for first in the regular season with SFA and New Mexico State. In the last matchup between the two on Jan. 20, the Redhawks came away with a 72-62 win at the Teague Center in Abilene.
“Now we get a chance to go play a really good Seattle team,” Tanner said. “Which is why they’re able to sit here and watch tonight and not have to play. We’ve got our work cut out for us but it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to run around, fly around and see what happens.”
Tanner’s squad tips off in the semifinal round against the Redhawks at 8:30 pacific and 10:30 central at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas and will be broadcast live on ESPN+.