ST GEORGE – In a year that featured 14 wins, trips across the country to face the nation’s biggest names and the continuation of a Division I transition, Tarleton men’s basketball perhaps saved its most inspiring performance for last.
With just 10 able players and three coaches, the Texans defeated Dixie State 83-69 inside Burns Arena in the penultimate date of the 2021 calendar year.
Tarleton led for all but 46 seconds in a wire-to-wire victory in its Western Athletic Conference opener. It did so despite missing five players and two coaches due to COVID-19 protocols. The program was also without senior Shakur Daniel, a two-year starter and player whom head coach Billy Gillispie described as the “heart and soul of our team,” due to an injury he sustained in the team’s 67-45 win over Air Force on Dec. 21.
Ultimately, the hand Tarleton was dealt following Christmas break made the triumph in St. George all the sweeter.
The win was the Texans’ third straight – all of which have come against Division I foes – and fifth in their last six tries. Tarleton (6-8) has now won four straight WAC affairs and three conference road games dating back to last season.
The Texans now own a 2-1 advantage in the all-time series over Dixie State (7-7) after the teams split the season series in the 2020-21 campaign.
Tarleton achieved the milestone despite entering just six players in the ballgame. Four went the full 40 minutes.
Freddy Hicks, Javontae Hopkins, Noah McDavid and Montre Gipson all went the distance.
Hicks stepped up as an alpha offensively on a night when Tarleton was without its primary ballhandler in Daniel along with Tahj Small, its second leading scorer at 14.4 points per game. The 6-6 forward netted a career-high 27 points on 9-18 shooting to lead all scorers.
Hopkins enjoyed the best offensive game of his Texan career. The lone holdover from Tarleton’s D2 era, He tallied 18 points on a ridiculous 77.8 percent (7-9) clip. His shooting percentage was the Texans’ most efficient in a single game this season.
McDavid canned 17 points on the strength of a 4-6 mark from downtown. It wasn’t a career-high in points, as the freshman racked up 25 vs. Dallas Christian on Dec. 7, but it may as well have been given the implications of Thursday’s game.
Gipson was a facilitator at both ends of the floor. He finished with 12 points and tied for the game high in rebounds (7) and assists (5).
The quartet engineered one of the most rousing performances Tarleton athletics has seen in recent memory.
McDavid converted an and-one at the 15:48 mark of the first half to stake Tarleton to a 10-3 lead, then doubled up the Trailblazers at 19-7 with a 3-pointer off a high ball screen three-and-a-half minutes later.
Hicks canned 17 of his points in the first half to give Tarleton to a 42-31 halftime edge entering the intermission. A deep 3-pointer followed by a backdoor cut and layup by the sophomore gave the Texans to their largest lead of the game at 23-8 with under 9:00 in the first half. Dixie State returned fire with a 16-7 extended run to get within five points of Tarleton but Hicks again had an answer. The Searcy, Arkansas native drained a step back jumper to snap the Trailblazers run, then followed with a buzzer-beater at the horn as a part of an 8-2 close to the half.
Out of the break, it proved to be Hopkins’ world. He scored seven straight points, beginning with a triple from the right key and concluding with an and-one finish through a double team, to maintain Tarleton’s double-digit edge at 55-43 wi9th 14:00 to go.
Dixie State rallied with a 14-2 run to crawl within one possession of the Texans at 59-59 with 7:13 to go and prompting Gillispie to signal for time.
Gipson righted the ship with two of the biggest buckets of the night. The 5-11 guard finagled a scoop shot through two defenders with his right hand on the first play out of the timeout and followed with a second straight finish at the rack.
Tarleton then induced Dixie State into its 10th team foul at the half with just under 6:00 to play and put the game away from there.
Hicks and McDavid sandwiched long bombs around a pair of free throws by Gipson to up Tarleton’s edge to 73-61 with 3:55 left.
Shamir Bogues, who played 18 minutes off the bench, then delivered the most memorable play of the evening at the 2:00 mark of the half. Bogues swatted a 3-point attempt from the right key, recovered the rebound and took the ball coast-to-coast for a left-handed dunk that made the score 76-67.
Five straight points from McDavid and a layup by Bogues with three seconds to go sealed the final margin of victory.
Tarleton shot 50 percent (29-58) from the field and from behind the arc (10-20). The Texans’ 3-point field goal percentage was a season high. The team has now shot above 50 percent overall in three of its last five games.
Dixie State finished with the edge on the glass (34-29) and in assists (15-14) but Tarleton pestered to the Trailblazers into 14 giveaways while committing just eight of its own.
The Texans now return to the site of one of the most impactful wins in school history with a trip to Orem on Saturday to ring in the new year vs. Utah Valley. Tarleton earned the first WAC win in program and school history with a 70-62 defeat of the Wolverines on Jan. 29.
UVU (9-4) fell to Abilene Christian 80-76 on Thursday.
Tipoff for Saturday’s tilt is set for 3 p.m. CT inside the UCCU Center.