The Wildcats (10-11, 2-6) fell short of winning an instant classic on Thursday, with the Grand Canyon University Antelopes (14-7, 5-3) edging out the Wildcats, 75-73, inside Moody Coliseum.
With the loss, the Wildcats fall to 0-3 in all matchups against GCU and remain in ninth place in the Western Athletic Conference standings. Despite the loss, head coach Brette Tanner said he feels like his team has turned a corner.
“I’m really proud of my team because we played to win,” Tanner said. “A couple of weeks ago that game would have been that way because mentally we were in a different place, but we have worked through that. We played great last Saturday and today. There’s some things obviously we can we can clean up or talk about but that was a great basketball game and I fully expected to win it.”
ACU was the first one to pull away in the first half, with the Wildcats going on a 9-2 over a five minute stretch. This gave the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game, 13-6. The Antelopes were able to narrow down the lead, making it an one possession in favor of the Wildcats heading to the locker room at halftime.
The visiting team came out swinging with a quick 7-0 run to start the second half. The Antelopes eventually grew their lead to 59-48 with 9:50 left to play but ACU quickly got to work cutting down the lead. In front of 1,889 Wildcat fans, ACU went on another 7-0 run to cut GCU’s lead to three with 8:30 left. The lead was cut down further at the 4:27 minute when a steal from senior Airion Simmons and a layup from sophomore guard Ali Abdou Dibba made it a one-point game.
The game stood at 75-73 with 13 seconds left due to made and missed throw by GCU. The Wildcats had two opportunities on offense but did not convert, giving the Antelopes a narrow win and ACU a heartbreaking loss.
By the final buzzer, ACU shot 48 percent from the field and 33 percent from the 3-point line, while GCU shot 51 and 47 percent respectively. The Wildcats won the turnover battle with eight to GCU’s 17, but free throws proved to be ACU’s downfall with the visitors holding a 19-9 free throw makes advantage.
“The elephant in the room is that it’s three games now with the free throw line is has gotten us beat,” Tanner said. “We’ve got to make free throws. We just talked about it in the locker room. We got to be mentally tough enough to step up to the line and knock them down because our record would be winning instead of losing right now if we do that.”
Three Wildcats finished Thursday scoring in double digits. Simmons tied his season high with 17 points while adding five rebounds and assists. Dibba led the Wildcats with 18 points, just one point shy of tying his career high. After the game, Tanner said…
“He’s going to be a great player in this league on day and he’s showing flashes of it now,” Tanner said. “With his length he can do a lot of things and offensively he has some tools. He’s great and he’s just going to get better.”
The final Wildcat in double digits was senior forward Joe Pleasant, who scored 12 points. With those numbers, Pleasant, who helped seal ACU’s historic NCAA tournament win in 2021 against the University of Texas, entered the 1,000 career point club throughout his career at ACU and Wichita State.
“He been an unbelievable leader for us,” Tanner said. “Unfortunately in a way, he is remembered for one moment but he has done so much more than that, especially this year. I hope that one day he’s in the Hall of Fame here, along with a lot of his teammates.”
Up next, the Wildcats stay home for a Diaper Derby matchup between the tenth-ranked team in the WAC, Utah Tech. The Trailblazers are also coming off a Thursday night loss in a tight game against ACU’s I-20 rival Tarleton, 74-72. ACU won both matchups against Utah Tech last year with the most recent game being an 80-64 win in Abilene on March 3, 2022.
“We can’t be down, we played great basketball today,” Tanner said. “I told them to keep their head up and not feel sorry about themselves. We didn’t play with a spirit of not to lose today, but to win. That’s the mentality and confidence we’ll need against a really good team in Utah Tech.”
The Wildcats and Trailblazers fight for better seeding on Saturday at 6 p.m. in Moody Coliseum with the game streaming live on ESPN+ and the ACU Sports Network.
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