The Wildcats’ season (26-11, 11-7) came to a close on their seventh game in 14 days to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (26-10, 13-5) Tuesday night in the semifinal round of the College Basketball Invitational, 85-69.
Tanner’s team started fast coming into halftime with a 46-39 lead. But the game slipped away from the Wildcats in the second half as the Blue Raiders held the Wildcats to four field goals and 23 second half points.
“One thing I was proud of was the guys never quit, they were competing till the very end and that’s our team,” Tanner said. “I’m really excited for them that they were able to come down here and win some games. They put themselves in a position to win a championship but it just didn’t happen.”
The Wildcats got out to a quick 18-7 lead off of senior guard Coryon Mason’s and-one free throw with 12:31 remaining in the half. In that span, the Wildcats shot 70 percent from the field and 3-3 from beyond the arc. The 66th best team in the nation in free throw percentage shot 7-7 from the line to take the seven point halftime lead 46-39 over the Blue Raiders.
The hot shooting Wildcats finished the half shooting 57 percent from the field and 67 percent from three. Tanner’s offense was led by sophomore forward Cameron Steele’s 16 on 6-7 shooting from the field and 4-5 from three.
Despite having the lead at halftime, ACU struggled from the floor only scoring 23 points in the second half. The Blue Raiders shut down the Wildcats offense early and took their first lead of the game at 50-49 with 14:17 remaining. ACU never recovered as MTSU led 70-59 with 6:19 to play off an and-one layup and free throw. MTSU finished the night shooting 10-11 from the floor.
“The effort was there but the mental fatigue set in and that’s where the shooting comes in,” Tanner said. “As soon as they made that run it popped our bubble. It just didn’t work out and we ran out of gas. This doesn’t take away from what these guys did this year.”
The Wildcats only made four field goals but shot 14-20 from the free throw line in the second half. Steele continued to be a highlight in the second half as he finished the night with 20. Mason and senior guard Mahki Mason scored in double digits as well with 15 and 14.
Morris, Mason and senior guard Reggie Miller wore the Wildcat uniform for the final time in the loss. The three guards finish their time with a three year record of 69-27 with an NCAA Tournament win last season 53-52 over the University of Texas. Senior guards Damien Daniels and Tobias Cameron have one year of eligibility remaining due the extra year granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19.
“What these guys did is one of the greatest seasons ever,” Tanner said. “We got to the conference tournament, rolled through two conference co-champions and the best seven-seed in the country. Then we came here, beat a really good Troy squad and an unbelievable Ohio team that won 25 games themselves. To me, I don’t know how you top this season.”
Tanner’s first year at the helm finishes at 25-11, 11-7. He finishes with the third most wins in a single season in Wildcat men’s basketball history. His squad also clinched a school record five postseason wins, all of which against 20 or more win teams. Yesterday, he was named a finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award which is given to the top first-year head coach in Div. 1.
“It’s an honor, I’m glad to be a part of that list, but players make coaches,” Tanner said. “It’s all about the players and I’m thankful I got to coach a bunch of guys like this in my first year.”
Now the Wildcats head to the offseason having completed their first year under Tanner in WAC play with a fourth-straight 20 win season and three straight conference championship appearances.