The high-flying Wildcats (24-9, 14-7) defeated the Seattle U Redhawks (23-10, 14-5) 78-76 on Friday night in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas to advance to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament Championship.
Prior to the game starting, former Wildcat and current UTEP head coach Joe Golding made his way to the Orleans Arena to watch his former players battle it out. His team’s season ended in a 66-59 loss to the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders on Thursday night in the Conference USA Tournament in Frisco.
“He lost a tough game last night, the fact that he would show up today not just for me but for these guys too,” Tanner said. “He is the one who built this thing and I’m just trying to protect it. Him and these players have created an opportunity for me to be here, I can’t wait to hug his neck. I’ll get him when I get home for doing that to me.”
For the third day in a row the Wildcats won to survive and advance in the WAC Tournament. Back on Jan. 20, the Redhawks defeated the Wildcats 72-62 at the Teague Center. This time, it was free throws that won the game for the Wildcats who shot 28-39 from the charity stripe.
“They won the free throw battle by ten last time and won by ten,” Tanner said. “I told them we needed to win the free throw battle tonight, we shot 39 and they shot 27. We made more free throws than they shot. That’s the one thing we needed to turn and we were able to do that.”
After an 11-4 SU start, sophomore forward Cameron Steele hit a big shot from downtown with time winding down to give the Wildcats a 28-22 halftime edge. Senior guard Mahki Morris scored nine points with three rebounds. SU sophomore guard Darrion Trammell torched Tanner’s defense for 11 of SU’s 22. Despite Trammell’s offensive prowess, Tanner’s defense scored ten points off of 13 turnovers.
“All we talked about all day was mental toughness,” Tanner said. “We’re not going to be tired. These guys did an excellent job of that.”
Senior guard and forward Tobias Cameron and junior forward Airion Simmons scored 16 a piece in the second half alone to help seal the semifinal win for the Wildcats. More importantly was Cameron’s 10-11 free throw shooting in the second half and a clutch free throw from senior Damien Daniels with five seconds left to make it a two point game.
“We do this thing every Monday in practice that’s a free throw ladder and I was the last one on there,” Cameron said. “I started being confident, getting to the charity stripe and making the most of it.”
The Seattle U Redhawks (23-10, 14-5) finish their season as the regular season conference co-champions alongside SFA and New Mexico State, who the Wildcats play tomorrow. Sophomore guard Darrion Trammell and redshirt sophomore guard Christopher Tyson scored their 1000th career points to finish their years. Trammell scored a career high 39 points on 10-21 shooting and 17-20 from the charity stripe. Redhawks head coach Chris Victor was an interim at the beginning of the season but has since transitioned to the full time role.
“Not the way we wanted to finish our season,” Victor said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group. This was a special season for our program, for our university, and it’s a tough way to end it but we’re leaving that locker room proud.”
After flying high on Friday, the Wildcats advance to the championship to take on the one-seed New Mexico State Aggies (25-6, 14-4) at 8:30 pacific and 10:30 central on Saturday night in Vegas. The winner takes the automatic qualifier from the WAC to the NCAA tournament.
NMSU is looking for their first NCAA tourney since 2019 while the Wildcats are looking for their third straight. NMSU defeated the four-seed Grand Canyon Antelopes on Friday 75-70 off of 25 points from WAC Player of the Year, Teddy Allen. Earlier in the season, the Aggies defeated the Wildcats 77-63 on Jan. 15 at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“They’re the champs,” Tanner said. “If we want to be the champs we have to go through them. We know what we’re up against, a really good team. We’re an underdog, there’s no pressure on us. We’re just going to go out there, fly around, have fun, and play ACU basketball.”
ACU’s fate will be determined against the Aggies starting at 7:00 p.m. PST and 9:00 CST Sat. night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas and will be broadcasted live on ESPNU.