Playing their fourth game in four days, the six-seed Wildcats (23-10, 11-7) were unable to hang with the one-seed New Mexico State Aggies (26-5, 14-4) as they fell 66-52 in the WAC Championship on Saturday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.
Wildcats first year head coach Brette Tanner was unable to bring home the WAC title against the valiant Aggies. Regardless of the loss, ACU was playing in their third straight conference championship with a chance at a third straight NCAA Tournament run.
“I believe it’s 2 Samuel 24 that talks about the knight going into a snowy pit, chasing the lion, and he kills it,” Tanner said. “Your average person sees a lion and he runs away, special people chase that lion into the pit. I coach a bunch of lion chasers. It’s hard right now but man I’d go into battle with these guys every day.”
ACU started on a quick 10-5 run but the Aggies responded with a 16-2 run to take a 30-21 lead at half. Senior guards Mahki Morris and Coryon Mason each scored five of the Wildcats first ten with the two only scoring two after their start. The Wildcats struggled to shoot the ball in the first half as they shot below 27 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. Tanner’s defense forced seven turnovers, but scored three off of them. The Aggies shot 8-11 from the charity stripe and blocked four Wildcat shots to take the nine point advantage at the break.
“That’s where we dug our hole,” Tanner said. “We thought we were being aggressive but I guess they were being a little bit more aggressive.”
Wildcats continued to fight back in the second half, only losing the second half 36-31. Mason hit a free throw at the 18:01 mark to cut the Aggie lead to six. That was the closest ACU got to a lead as the Aggies continued to roll down the stretch. With 47 seconds left to play, Tanner took his seniors in Reggie Miller, Mahki Morris, and Tobias Cameron out of the game.
“Unbelievable,” said junior forward Airion Simmons on what the seniors mean to him. “These my brothers that I go to war with and practice in the summer grinding with and I’m going to miss them for sure.”
With the win, the one-seed New Mexico State Aggies (26-6, 14-4) head to the NCAA Tournament after losing to Grand Canyon University in the WAC Championship last year 74-56. Redshirt junior Aggies guard Teddy Allen won All-WAC Tournament Most Valuable Player and redshirt junior guard Sir’Jabari Rice made the All-WAC Tournament team. The Aggies now await Selection Sunday which airs at 5 p.m. central on Sunday on CBS. Currently in the latest Bracketology, the Aggies are ranked as a 13 seed facing the four seed UCLA Bruins (25-7, 15-5) in the Round of 64.
“It feels pretty darn good,” said Aggies’ head coach Chris Jans. “It’s been awhile since we’ve sat up here and called ourselves tournament champions and know that we’re going to the NCAA Tournament. Obviously very gratifying, I’m so happy for all the kids in our program.”
Now the Wildcats await a bid from a lower level tournament to potentially extend their season even further. Tanner finishes his first season with the Wildcats 23-10 overall and 11-7 in WAC play before the tournament. Tanner’s five seniors Tobias Cameron, Mahki Morris, Coryon Mason, Damien Daniels and Reggie Miller may not be done playing basketball in a Wildcats uniform. Cameron and Daniels have an extra year of eligibility while the other three are done after this year.
“To do what they did this week, this is their third straight conference championship. These guys have changed the face of ACU basketball, they’ve changed the face of Abilene Christian University, and that’s what lion chasers do.”
Postseason tournaments could sweeten a bittersweet ending to a remarkable Wildcats season who played in their third straight conference championship, however this time it ended in a loss.
“These guys got me this opportunity and I just told them that,” Tanner said. “For them to do what they did for me in my first year in a position like this, it’s unbelievable. We will be forever connected. These guys have changed my life and I hope in some way that I’ve changed theirs in a positive way.”