By BRAD KEITH
Photos by RUSSELL HUFFMAN
STEPHENVILLE (March 15, 2015) — Tarleton State is sweet again.
As in Sweet 16. For the fifth time in school history.
Mo Lee shook off an illness to go 6-7 from the arc to score 24 points – two short of his career high – while Tarleton (29-3) defenders Nosa Ebomwonyi and Malcolm Hamilton limited prolific Colorado-Colorado Springs (27-6) scorer Derrick White to 19 points in a 84-62 romp at Wisdom Gym Sunday night.
Tarleton, which tied its senior college era wins record with its 29th, advances to face Lone Star Conference rival Angelo State in the South Central Region final at 7 p.m. Tuesday. ASU is in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history after dominating Midwestern State 66-49 in the earlier semifinal Sunday.
Lee was unconscious in the opening half, hitting 5-5 from outside the arc to help Tarleton build a commanding 39-22 lead at intermission. He added another nine points in the second half.
“People didn’t realize Mo was sick tonight. He had an IV before the game and another IV at halftime,” said 27th year head coach Lonn Reisman, who has 587 wins at Tarleton. “He had a gutsy performance tonight. He threw up all day long, but he came to play.”
Junior Michael Hardge matched his career high with 20 points and also dealt five assists while running the point of an offense that turned the ball over just eight times for the second straight night.
“Every game our goal is to limit turnovers, keep it under 12 a game,” said Hardge during Tarleton’s post game press conference. “He (pointing at Reisman) preaches every day – take care of the ball and make every possession count.”
White scored 50 when UCCS edged fellow Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference member Colorado School of Mines 90-87 in Saturday’s regional quarterfinals. He had topped 30 in his previous three outings.
“Nosa and Malcolm are outstanding defensive players, both long and both aggressive,” said Reisman. We did a great job on White. He’s an outstanding player, but we rose to the challenge. Other people played well for us too. We picked up a couple early charges when he was going to the hole, and we did what we needed to make it tough on him.”
Hamilton said the goal was simply to make White take tough shouts.
“The game plan really was just don’t give him anything easy,” said Hamilton, a junior guard. “Make sure he took tough shots, and rebound when he missed. That was the game plan for us.”
White was clearly frustrated throughout the game, though he did score 13 points in the second half, which was little more than a formality after Tarleton’s strong start.
“I was just trying to do whatever I could to help my team win,” said White. “I missed some shots I usually make, but Tarleton is a great team. They make it hard on you.”
Indeed. UCCS averaged 87 points entering the game, and had not scored below 63 all season.
“I thought we lost to a very good team tonight that played very well,” said Colorado Springs head coach Jeff Culver. “They made a lot of shots early, beat us to a lot of loose balls early and got us in a hole we just couldn’t climb out of.”
Which all went exactly according to script for Reisman, who saw his current team match his 2002-03 Texans with 29 wins and come within one game of reaching a third Elite Eight and first since 2006.
“We knew what we had to do. We got up and pressured them, we won the 50-50 balls, took charges and got on the floor for loose balls,” said the 18th winningest coach in Division II history. “We sacrificed our bodies and did whatever we could do and that stimulated our defense.”
Hamilton scored 13 to give Tarleton a third double-digit scorer, while E.J. Reed scored nine and Davene Carter contributed eight points and eight rebounds. There was a scary moment when Reed appeared to take a charge – it was called a blocking foul – and was slow to get up, grabbing his left knee. Team doctors and athletic trainers worked on him for a few minutes before he showed the ability to do defensive slides along the baseline. He re-entered the game and scored a late bucket in garbage time.
Alex Welsh doubled up for UCCS, scoring 15 points to go with 13 rebounds and six assists. White was 8-17 from the floor but 0-5 from the arc. He had three assists and three blocked shots but only two rebounds while committing half his team’s 10 turnovers.
Tarleton shot 53.3 percent from the floor including 47.8 percent from the arc. The Texans were 11-23 from downtown, outscoring UCCS 33-15 from deep. The Mountain Lions shot 43.4 percent but only 23.8 percent from the arc.
Hardge isn’t surprised to see the regional come down to two teams from the LSC, which this season had four 20-win teams for the first time in at least 17 years. Tarleton and ASU split their two regular-season meetings, each winning at home.
“I feel like the Lone Star conference is one of the toughest conferences in the nation,” Hardge said. “I’ve been here three years, and it’s always a battle no matter who we play. I’m sure it will be a battle (Tuesday).”
A battle to see which team will be ‘elite’ instead of just ‘sweet.’