STEPHENVILLE – With just over a week separating Tarleton from the start of conference play, the Texans turned in their most complete performance of the winter on Tuesday to close their nonconference slate.
Tarleton soared past Air Force 67-45 inside Wisdom Gym in front of an announced crowd of 1,423 spectators to earn its second straight victory and fourth win in its last five tries.
The win improves Tarleton’s overall record to 5-8 ahead of its first Western Athletic Conference contest of the year on Dec. 30 at Dixie State.
The Falcons’ 45 points scored were a season-low and the fewest allowed by Tarleton opposite a Division I opponent.
Following a defensive slugfest that saw Tarleton enter the intermission with a 21-14 lead, the Texans displayed their own form of aerial blitzkrieg versus the Falcons (7-4).
Tarleton shot 77 percent (17-22) from the field in the second half in what was their most thorough 20-minute offensive exhibition under second-year head coach Billy Gillispie.
The Texans knocked down 11 of their first 12 shots to build a 46-27 lead at the 10:36 mark of the half. Tarleton later assumed its largest lead of the evening at 65-40 with less than 2:00 remaining.
The 77 percent clip was the program’s highest shooting percentage in a half under Gillispie. Tarleton shot a season-high 58 percent (25-43) for the game – its best mark opposite against a D1 team and second-highest in its D1 era. The Texans also connected at a season-best 43 percent from long range.
Four players scored in double figures for Tarleton. Tahj Small finished with a game-high 14 points on 6-12 shooting. Fellow senior Montre Gipson scored all 12 of his points out of halftime to help ignite Tarleton’s offensive outburst. Sophomores Freddy Hicks and Shamir Bogues tallied nine points apiece.
Hicks led all players on the glass with nine rebounds while Bogues tallied a game-high three steals.
Each player took turns stoking Tarleton’s offensive flame.
Air Force led 4-0 to begin the game but Small ensured the two-possession edge would be the Falcons’ last. Following a free throw by Shakur Daniel (8 points, 5 rebounds), Small scored five points on Tarleton’s ensuing pair of possessions to give the Texans a lead they never relinquished.
Bogues followed by scoring nine of Tarleton’s final 12 points in the half to transform a 9-8 lead near the midway mark of the period into a multi-possession lead.
Small racked up three straight buckets inside the arc as a part of an 8-3 run over the first 2:30 of the second half before Bogues emphatically increased Tarleton’s lead to 38-22 off a steal and slam three-and-a-half minutes later. Hicks then canned a triple from the top of the arc via a no-look assist from Gipson to give the Texans their first 20-point lead of the evening at 52-32 with 7:25 to go.
The 14-point effort by Small marked the 12th time this winter he has eclipsed 10 points while Gipson has registered double-digit scoring performances in 24-of-32 career games in Purple and White.
Hicks’ all-around effort continued his strong showing in home games. The 6-6 forward is averaging 10.5 points and eight rebounds per outing inside Wisdom Gym.
Bogues, who ranks second in the WAC in steals per game (2.23), has now posted 16 multi-steal efforts in his collegiate career.
The Killeen, Texas native was the star of a showdown that billed itself as a chess match defensively. Air Force entered the game ranked 29th in the nation in scoring defense (59.7 ppg) while Tarleton has limited opponents to 56.3 points per game in its six home affairs thus far.
The Falcons, though, run a Princeton offense that can leave themselves susceptible to giveaways – Air Force entered turning the ball over an average of 15.2 times per game – and played right into the hands of Tarleton and its patented pressure man-to-man defense.
Tarleton forced 15 turnovers and limited the Falcons to 7-20 shooting from the field in the first half. The team’s 14 points allowed were tied for its fewest in the first half under Gillispie. Air Force gave the ball away 18 times for the game.
Tarleton rendered the Falcons’ leading scorers A.J. Walker (17.8 ppg) and Ethan Taylor (9.8 ppg) ineffective, limiting the Texas natives to six and four points, respectively.
The Texans also finished with a positive rebounding differential (25-22) for the second time in as many games.
The win boosts Tarleton’s home record to 5-1 this season and 11-4 all-time under Gillispie. The Texans are now 46-7 in December home games since 2007.
Tipoff for Tarleton’s conference-opener against Dixie State is set for 8 p.m. CT in St. George. The Texans then complete their two-game swing through the Beehive State with a New Year’s Day clash against Utah Valley and return home for their first WAC home game on Jan. 6 against Sam Houston.