The Wildcats (19-9, 10-7) used 34 points off of 25 turnovers to defeat the Dixie State Trailblazers (13-17, 6-11) 80-64 on Thursday night in the Teague Center.
In the first of the final two games at Teague, the Wildcats used their points off turnovers to continue their dominance as the best team in the nation in turnover margin and turnovers forced. Wildcats’ head coach Brette Tanner took care of business with one game remaining before the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Las Vegas from March 8-12.
“I coached these guys really hard this week, probably too hard, so I’m really proud of how they responded,” Tanner said. “I didn’t think we started the game really well but I thought we had some guys come off the bench that were amazing tonight. I was just really happy with what the guys were able to do tonight.”
Heading into halftime, the Wildcats held a commanding 40-27 lead. Tanner and the Wildcats defense stepped up again scoring 23 points off of 15 turnovers. In addition, the Wildcats scored 20 points in the paint, forced 11 steals, dished out ten assists, and 18 fastbreak points.
Senior guard Mahki Morris went on a tear scoring 12 on 4-6 shooting, three rebounds, and two assists in the first half. Morris’ 12 points secured his first double digit scoring performance since he dropped 17 in the 85-82 win at Lamar on Jan. 29.
“Just staying composed,” Morris said. “Coach Tanner always tells me to let the shots come to me and it’ll open up more shots. I think that’s what happened tonight is just defending and not getting comfortable.”
Morris finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three assists. With the strong 13 point lead at halftime, the Wildcats kept their foot on the gas finishing with a 16 point win. Tanner said his team had a, ‘spirited,’ timeout at the 14:18 mark as his team held an 11 point lead. The Wildcats then came out on a 14-0 run and led 71-44 with 8:46 remaining.
“We talked about it, then they came out and there was a little energy and we turned them over and got buckets,” Tanner said. “That little stretch solidified the win. We expect great defense, offense comes and goes but if you’ll play great defense every night then you’ll have a chance every night.”
As well as the transition offense, the Wildcats scored 36 in the paint, handed out 17 assists, 20 second chance points, and 32 bench points. Tanner’s Wildcats led for over 36 minutes with only two lead changes. Junior forward Airion Simmons came away with a career high six steals.
To finish the season, the Wildcats will take on the Tarleton Texans who lost 69-50 at Sam Houston tonight. The Texans currently sit eighth and the Wildcats sit tied for sixth in the conference ahead of Senior Day for the Wildcats on Saturday. The Wildcats will celebrate five seniors who are all guards: Reggie Miller, Mahki Morris, Coryon Mason, Damien Daniels, and Tobias Cameron. Cameron and Daniels have the option to come back for another year if they choose to.
“What these five seniors have done not just for this basketball program but for this university is unbelievable,” Tanner said. “They have put Abilene Christian on a national stage. This was the best run in the history of ACU basketball, no matter what we do from this point forward. I’m not standing here right now in front of you without those five seniors.”
If the Wildcats win on Saturday it will be the fourth straight season the program has amassed over 20 wins. There had only been three 20 or more win seasons in ACU’s first 97 years of men’s basketball. The Wildcats could finish with the sixth or seventh seed in the WAC Tournament next week following the season finale.
“We got a hungry dog coming in with Tarleton, they’re going to want to finish their season on the right note too,” Tanner said. “When we started in Teague, I did not know I would be emotional when we walk out of here. It’s going to be a tall task but I hope we can finish this thing the right way.”
The season and Teague Center finale between the Wildcats (19-9, 10-7) and Texans (14-16, 9-8) will tip at 6 p.m. on Saturday at the Teague Center.