Head coach Brette Tanner’s six-seed Wildcats moved up to third all time in ACU men’s basketball record for wins in a single season with his 25th on the year (25-10, 11-7) defeating the three-seed Ohio Bobcats (25-10, 14-6) 91-86 to clinch the College Basketball Invitational quarterfinals win.
Right from the start, the Bobcats lost a significant starter in redshirt graduate forward and Xavier transfer, Jason Carter, who fell awkwardly and did not return. Carter averaged over 13 points per game and nearly seven rebounds per game. He was also a third-team All-Mid American Conference selection at the end of the year.
“He was one of the ways I was worried they could hurt us and they didn’t have that tonight,” Tanner said. “They didn’t miss a beat without him. He came down wrong and it was an unfortunate play and we’re praying he’s okay.”
Having lost a viable starter, the Wildcats took advantage of the Bobcats’ loss and moved forward to take their 25th win of the season. Both teams shot a combined 69 free throws on the night with Ohio shooting 27-40 and ACU shooting 25-29. Senior guard Damien Daniels hit the final four from the charity stripe to seal the two possession win. The 91 points from the Wildcats were their most since the 112-41 win over Howard Payne on Dec. 19.
“For us to go out there on a neutral floor and get our 25th win, I was extremely proud of our guys and we didn’t play typical ACU basketball,” Tanner said. “What I mean by that is we forced turnovers but we played ACU basketball with how hard we played. We did things that win basketball games. When you’re not playing at your best level you have to do certain things and we did those things tonight.”
After scoring 48 points against the Troy Trojans the night before, the Wildcats came out red hot once again to score 36 in the first half against the Bobcats. Senior guard Coryon Mason led with nine, junior forward Airion Simmons and sophomore forward Cameron Steele each added eight of their own. Tanner’s defense forced ten turnovers in the first half but only scored seven off of them.
“We took a team that’s played three minutes of zone all year and played zone for 70 percent of the game,” Tanner said. “We were able to score more because we were playing a team that’s not used to zone. It was a credit to us for playing zone and making them face something they’re not good at but guys stepped up and made plays.”
A tense second half battle saw the Bobcats cut ACU’s lead to three at 63-60 with over seven minutes left. Tanner’s team continued to pull away as they led by ten off of senior guard Damien Daniel’s layup with 2:31 remaining. Senior guard Coryon Mason led his team with 20, two points shy of a career high. Junior forward Airion Simmons backed Mason up with 18, redshirt junior guard Immanuel Allen dropped 13, and sophomore forward Cameron Steele scored a dozen. Nine of Allen’s 13 came in the second half.
ACU’s offense finished strong, scoring their final five attempts from the floor, finishing the night shooting 54 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Along with the offense, Tanner’s defense finished the night with 15 points off of 14 turnovers and 18 assists to go along with 33 bench points. But with 4:02 remaining, senior guard and forward Tobias Cameron fouled out on a technical foul with ACU leading 72-62 at the time.
“He’s just a knucklehead,” Tanner said. “That was a big play because it gave them the opportunity to knock two possessions off the game. You can’t do that when you’re playing somebody as good as Ohio. Fortunately his teammates had his back and pulled it out for him.”
After the tense win, the six-seed Wildcats advance to the CBI semifinals to take on the two-seed Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders of the Conference USA. Yesterday, MTSU defeated the ten-seed Boston Terriers 76-46 in the quarterfinal round. Former Wildcats head coach and current University of Texas-El Paso head coach Joe Golding had his first season ended by MTSU 66-59 in overtime in the second round of the C-USA Tournament. The Blue Raiders come into the semifinal matchup sitting at 25-10, 13-5 overall.
“They’re extremely long and athletic, we haven’t seen that in awhile,” Tanner said. “We’ve played bigger and stronger teams all year but we haven’t played the length. It’s going to be a tough matchup because they’re one of the better teams in the Conference USA and one of the better mid-major teams in the country. We gave ourselves a chance to play on national television in a semifinal of a mid-major tournament so we’re going to be fired up and we’ll see what happens.”
The semifinal matchup tips off at 8 p.m. on Tuesday in Daytona Beach, Fla. and broadcast live on ESPN2.