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By BRAD KEITH
Photos by JESSIE HORTON
EVANSVILLE (March 25, 2015) — Tarleton State simply stuck with the plan.
And the plan worked.
Trailing 19-9 early on, nobody panicked. Not even with senior star Mo Lee picking up two early fouls or with EJ Reed getting his second moments later.
Instead, the Texans (31-3) turned up the defensive intensity and did what they’ve done all year – make opponents uncomfortable on the offensive end.
The result? A discombobulated Mount Olive (31-4) offense that rarely even threatened the Texans in the second half of a 77-59 Tarleton rout to begin quarterfinal play in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight at the Ford Center Wednesday afternoon.
The victory lands Tarleton in Division II’s Final Four for just the second time in school history, the first since 2005. Tarleton also reached the Elite Eight in 2006, but lost in the quarterfinals. The Texans will face Indiana (Pa.) or Azusa Pacific at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“I thought our guys looked a little bit shellshocked the first five minutes, but we got our nerves under control, made adjustments and played Tarleton basketball as the game went on,” said 27th year head coach Lonn Reisman, who’s team has won 18 of its last 19. “Our program is built on defense, we just had to engage our game plan.”
And they did.
Tarleton outscored Mount Olive 68-40 after facing the early deficit, limiting UMO to just 38.5 percent shooting for the game after the Trojans shot above 60 percent for much of the first half.
Mo Lee shook off first half foul trouble to score 12 of his team-leading 15 after intermission. He was one of four Texans to reach double figures, while two others netted nine in the balanced effort that saw Tarleton hit 51.2 percent from the floor.
True freshman Deshawn Riddick was one of those with nine points. With Lee battling foul trouble, Riddick played 25 minutes off the bench.
“I just come in and play within the system. Me and Mike (Michael Hardge) play well together and feed off each other,” said Riddick, who took over the point while Hardge moved to shooting guard with Lee on the bench. “Coach told me I’m not a freshman anymore, that I’m a sophomore and it’s time to step up.”
Nosa Ebomwonyi is a true freshman who has started the bulk of the season for Tarleton, and Reisman looks at him as a sophomore, too. Ebomwonyi hit 3-of-4 from the 3-point arc and had 11 points in addition limiting Conference Carolinas Player of Year Dontrell Brite to just five.
“My big thing is energy and defense, and we could tell early we had to match their energy,” said Ebomwonyi, who now regularly is given the task of limiting the opposition’s highest-scoring guard. “I focus mostly on my defense, and if I get the opportunity to score and help my team win that way, then great.”
Hardge and forward Davene Carter each scored 12 for Tarleton, with Hardge hitting 10-of-14 from the foul stripe.
“For me, a big part of my mindset is being aggressive and getting to the line because I know that helps the team out,” said Hardge, who then quoted Reisman. “‘Free throws are free, might as well get as many as you can.’”
As a team, Tarleton was 25-34 from the stripe, where it outscored Mount Olive by 12.
So good defensively were the Texans that Mount Olive, which entered the game averaging 74.9 points, hit just seven field goals and shot only 24.1 percent in the second half. During one stretch, the Trojans missed 11 straight shots while Tarleton put the game out of reach.
“A lot of the folks here may not realize it, but if you have followed our program for any length of time, you know we are built on defense,” said Reisman as players around him nodded their agreement. “When we play Tarleton State defense, it feeds into our offense at the other end, and that’s when we are difficult to beat.”
Mount Olive didn’t make it look so difficult early, jumping out to its 19-9 advantage by the 9:49 mark of the opening half. It was 26-21 before Tarleton really dug in, scoring 12 of the half’s final 17 points for a 33-31 lead at the break. Two 3-pointers by Ebomwonyi jump started the run, before Riddick tied the game with a circus-style reverse layup.
Hardge gave Tarleton the lead for good from the foul stripe, which is where the Texans scored their final four points of the half.
The final 3-pointer by Ebomwonyi was followed by a Carter dunk that made it 38-31 in the opening minute of the second half, but Mount Olive enough fuel left in the tank for one more run.
The Trojans scored eight of nine to even the score at 39-39 before Tarleton took off on a 9-2 push to lead 48-41 with 13:58 remaining. Lee hit a jumper and two free throws to begin the rally, then continued it with a no-look bounce pass to set up Malcolm Hamilton for a two-handed slam. Hamilton also hit two from the foul stripe during the run.
Moments later Carter scored four points including a slam during a string of eight straight points to give Tarleton a 66-51 advantage. The final seven minutes were little more than a formality.
Mount Olive was led by Mike Moore with four 3-pointers and 18 points. Kendall Hargrove doubled up with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while JaQuan Blount scored 13. Brite was limited from a scoring standpoint bud did dish out six assists.