In the final matchup at the Teague Center on Senior Day, the Wildcats (20-9, 11-7) defeated their long time rival in the Tarleton Texans (14-17, 9-9), 61-56, sealing their fourth straight 20 win season.
First year head Brette Tanner and the Wildcats locked up the Western Athletic Conference six seed in fashion scoring 26 off of 23 turnovers. The Wildcats celebrated senior guards Reggie Miller, Mahki Morris, Coryon Mason, Damien Daniels and Tobias Cameron. Cameron and Daniels have the option to come back for another year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but are yet to announce their decision.
“I’ve coached for 23 years and I don’t know if I’ve coached a group of players where every one of them won 20 games,” Tanner said. “I tell the seniors every year before they start their season, ‘Don’t let this fall apart on your watch,’ at some point there’s always a dip, maybe 20 years from now but, ‘Don’t let this fall apart on your watch.’ They didn’t do that and it doesn’t matter what happens next week or from this point forward, they’ve secured their legacy here.”
In a game with over 50 free throws taken and a three-point game with less than a minute to play, the Wildcats came out on top. Tanner and the Wildcats have now won 11 of their last 13 after losing five straight in January.
“We’re playing as good of basketball as any,” Tanner said. “We’re one or two defensive stops away from playing for a regular season championship. That’s how close we are and how good the WAC is.”
A tense first half between these storied rivals saw the Wildcats head to the locker room with a 26-23 lead. There were a total of 21 fouls with both teams shooting over 89 percent from the stripe. Senior guard Mahki Morris led his team with nine after scoring the first seven points for the Wildcats. Tanner’s Wildcats were 17-0 this season when leading at half.
Following the tense first half, the Texans rallied back from a 53-41 deficit to make it a 59-56 ACU lead with 49 seconds to play. Despite the rally, ACU stayed strong to secure a 61-56 victory. With the win, the Wildcats locked up the six seed in the WAC tournament next week and their fourth straight 20 win season.
“I’ve said all year that we’re trying to have a great season. It’s not about numbers of wins, we want to have a great season. These guys have done that, they’ve secured that, it’s done, it’s been an unbelievable year, and this is all icing on the cake. Now we get to go to Vegas and compete for a championship.”
Morris continued his dominant first, finishing with 18 points, two assists, four rebounds and two steals. ACU scored 26 off of 23 turnovers and are still the best team in the nation in turnover margin and turnovers forced. The Wildcats finished their time in Teague 26-3 overall.
“We’re going to miss this place,” Tanner said. “If you had told me two years ago when we moved in here that I was going to say that I’d think you’re crazy. This has been really awesome and it’s been a special place for all of us. Everything we’ve gone through in the past two years here, there’s a lot of emotions coming out of the door today.”
The six seed Wildcats will face the winner of the Utah Valley and Chicago State matchup taking place on Tuesday night at 8:30 in Las Vegas. Tanner and the Wildcats will play the winner on Wednesday at 8:30 to kick off their first ever trip to the Orleans Arena.
“I believe we’re going to win every game with that group,” Tanner said. “I know that we’re going to be focused next week no matter what. For us to lose, somebody’s going to have to beat us, we’re not going to beat ourselves next week. I’m laying my head down tonight comfortably heading into Vegas.”
Postseason play for the Wildcats tips off at 8:30 on Wednesday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas and streamed live on ESPN+.