STEPHENVILLE – It had been 45 years since Tarleton and Sam Houston met on the hardwood prior to Thursday’s Western Athletic Conference showdown inside Wisdom Gym.
Suffice it to say, the Texans made the most of the reunion.
Tarleton blitzed the Bearkats 75-64 behind a season-high 59 percent clip (30-51) from the field to move to 7-9 on the season and 2-1 in WAC play.
The Texans led by as many as 17 points and never trailed outside of a 5-0 hole 30 seconds into the ballgame.
The win was Tarleton’s fourth all-time over Sam Houston (7-9, 2-1 WAC) and snapped the Bearkats’ three-game winning streak.
Tarleton has won five straight at home and six of its last eight overall. The Texans are now 12-4 inside the friendly confines of Wisdom Gym under second-year head coach Billy Gillispie.
Tahj Small racked up a game and career-high 28 points on 11-14 shooting. The senior’s 28 points scored were an individual game high for Tarleton in true D1 games this season. Small did so despite missing Tarleton’s last two games due to COVID-19 protocols.
“He played great,” Gillispie said. “Probably the best game he’s played in his life, but he’s capable of that. For him to be able to do that after being out with COVID, that shows you reeally how tough he is. He was breathing a little bit harder. I kept asking him if he needed a break and he said ‘No,’ and that he wanted to be in there. But he played tough just like all the rest of them.”
The 6-4 senior netted 18 of his points in the first half to help stake Tarleton to a 42-31 lead. He scored 16 of Tarleton’s first 25 points on a 4-4 mark from downtown.
Small’s effort at the other end of the court was equally impressive. He recorded a season and game high four steals and did so while drawing the assignment of the WAC’s leading scorer in Sam Houston graduate transfer Savion Flagg (19.6 ppg).
All Small did was hold the former Texas A&M Aggie scoreless through the first 20 minutes on an 0-7 shooting clip. The 6-7 forward tallied 18 second half points but they were inefficient and didn’t come easy. Flagg scored 10 of his points at the foul line and finished the game 4-16 from the field.
“We knew he was their best player coming in, so we just really tried to keep him limited,” Small said. “Tonight, we didn’t want him to to get hot or anything, because once he gets going, the rest of the team gets going. I just tried to do my best to slow him down tonight.”
Montre Gipson and Freddy Hicks also scored in double figures. Gipson scored 18 points and dished out a game-high six assists. The DeSoto, Texas native has notched seven consecutive double digit scoring games against WAC opponents. Hicks finished with 12 points and led Tarleton with nine rebounds.
The Texans entered the game in possession of the conference’s lowest shooting percentage behind the arc at 29 percent. Tarleton, though, turned the stats on their ugly head through the contest’s first 20 minutes.
Tarleton knocked down seven of its first 10 shots from long range – the last of which came vis Small – to extend its lead to 25-19 with under 9:00 left in the first half. The Texans shot 61 percent (8-13) from behind the arc in the game’s first 20 minutes – their best mark from downtown in a half this season.
After Small gave Tarleton the lead in the early going, Gipson took it from there. The senior scored 10 of Tarleton’s final 14 points in the first half.
Gipson and Hicks were the architects behind several key plays out of the intermission that stymied Sam Houston’s comeback bid.
The Bearkats trimmed Tarleton’s advantage to five points at 44-39 with 15:39 left to play. Hicks then kickstarted a decisive 13-5 scoring run over the ensuing four minutes that proved decisive.
The 6-6 sophomore muscled his way through two defenders for a second-chance rebound and an and-one post up with his right hand on the ensuing possession to regain Tarleton’s multi-possession lead. Gipson heaved a cross-court pass over the top of a Sam Houston full court press on an inbounds play one minute later to set Small up with a fast break dunk. A 3-pointer from Noah McDavid (9 points, 2 assists) coupled with a fast break layup by then Hicks swelled Tarleton’s lead back to double digits at 58-45 with under 11:30 to play. Sam Houston never got within single digits the rest of the way.
Tarleton went 6-6 from the field over that span.
The Texans held Sam Houston to 22-55 shooting (40 percent) and dished out 17 assists to the Bearkats’ 11. Tarleton’s 17 dimes were their most in a game vs. a D1 opponent this season.
Tarleton now has a chance to earn a home sweep of its east Texas conference rivals when it hosts Stephen F. Austin at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The Lumberjacks (9-4) defeated Abilene Christian in their WAC debut on Thursday.