STEPHENVILLE – The finest hour of Tarleton’s Division I and Western Athletic Conference era dawned on Wisdom Gym on Saturday.
Tarleton and Stephen F. Austin reignited a once-dormant rivalry with their first meeting in nearly 45 years.
An SFA victory guaranteed the Lumberjacks a share of first place in the WAC standings and would have marked their 15th in 16 tries over Tarleton. And for most of the evening, it appeared as though the visiting shade of purple would reign supreme.
But despite leading for just 30 seconds in regulation and trailing by as many as 12 points late in the first half, the Texans refused to go away.
Tarleton tied the game at 60-60 with 45 seconds to go, then sent the game to overtime at 62-all. From there, it was all Tarleton.
The Texans scored 11 of the game’s final 16 points to stun the Lumberjacks 77-71 in emphatic come-from behind fashion.
“Our team’s the toughest one in the country,” head coach Billy Gillispie said. “I’ve always said that. I said it after we played at Michigan, proved it again at Gonzaga, proved it again time and time and time again. We play very few minutes, and it doesn’t matter how many minutes we play. Our guys are tough as nails.”
Montre Gipson drained a 3-pointer from the left baseline off an offensive rebound by Freddy HIcks to knot the game at 60-all. The triple was Tarleton’s lone make from downtown. The Texans finished the game 1-14 from deep.
“If he shoots it, I think it’s going in,” Gillispie said. “He’s a really good player. His numbers don’t really show what he can do from [deep] this year, but he’s a clutch guy. He’s a tough guy. These guys have learned to make plays when they count the most. That was a huge play to tie it up. We got confidence.”
The bucket proved to turn the contest on its ear.
Hicks then secured an offensive rebound and induced SFA leading scorer Gavin Kensmil (15.2 ppg) into his fifth foul and the Lumberjacks 10th in the half.
The sophomore canned both free throws to inch Tarleton ahead 62-60 with 26 seconds to go. SFA got to the line 10 seconds later to tie it up and send the game to an extra period after a 3-point attempt by Tahj Small from the top of the key fell short as time expired.
“We go into five minutes,” Gillispie said, “and I knew we’d be tougher than they were, and they’re tough. They’re really tough.”
Small bookended layups through traffic around a post-up from Hicks to stake Tarleton to a 68-66 lead less than two minutes into overtime. SFA guard Sadaidriene Hall forced Small to commit his fifth foul on a drive to the rack on the following possession.
But Hall – who finished with seven of SFA’s nine points in overtime – only hit one-of-two at the charity stripe.
Tarleton closed hard from there.
Noah McDavid finished a second-chance layup after he grabbed his own rebound off a miss from deep to keep the Texans in front 70-67 with 2:00 to go. Fellow freshman Jayshawn Moore followed with the most impactful play of his collegiate career 45 seconds later. Moore took the ball to the rack off a steal and drew a blocking foul to force another SFA starter out of the game in Latrell Jossell. Gillispie waved the 6-6 forward over to the sideline. Following a few words of encouragement, Moore calmly stepped to the line and sunk both free throws to keep Tarleton in front 72-69.
Tarleton then held SFA scoreless for more than a minute. Gipson and Hicks teamed up and canned five straight free throws to ice the game.
Tarleton went 4-5 from the field and was 7-7 at the foul line in the extra period.
Hickes finished with a game-high 23 points behind a 9-11 mark a the foul line to pair with eight rebounds and three blocks. He played with four fouls over the final 13 minutes of the ballgame.
Gipson and Small each tallied 18 points. Gipson dished out a game-high six assists.
Hicks scored 10 of Tarleton’s first 18 points to keep the Texans within single digits of the Lumberjacks. Trailing 30-18 with 2:34 left in the first half, Tarleton closed on an 8-0 run behind takes to the basket by Hicks and Gipson and four free throws from McDavid (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals).
Tarleton again demonstrated its resiliency early in the second half. SFA assumed a 40-30 lead, but the Texans methodically worked the deficit into a tie at 48-48 at the 7:30 mark of the second half.
The game lived up to its billing as a defensive slugfest. The Lumberjacks and Texans entered ranked second and third, respectively, in forced turnovers per game at 18.7 and 16.8. Tarleton pestered SFA into 24 giveaways – its most in a true D1 game this season – while the Lumberjacks forced 15 turnovers of their own.
The teams combined for 49 fouls with five players fouling out of the ballgame.
Tarleton was even on the glass with a taller SFA squad at 37 boards apiece and finished with a 44-32 advantage in points in the paint.
Tarleton moved to 8-9 overall and 3-1 in WAC play with the result. The Texans now sit in a tie for third place in the conference standings with Sam Houston, whom they defeated 75-64 on Thursday.
The victory was Tarleton seventh in its last nine games and sixth straight at home. The Texans are now 13-4 inside Wisdom Gym under Gillispie.
The win was Tarleton’s second straight over SFA, dating back to a 71-67 victory in 1977 in Nacogdoches.
Following a well-deserved celebration of a weekend sweep of the east Texas schools, Tarleton heads back out on the road to face a pair of WAC powerhouse programs in New Mexico State and Grand Canyon. The Texans square off with the Aggies at 8 p.m. CT on Thursday in Las Cruces, then meet the Lopes in Phoenix two days later. Tarleton’s matchup with GCU will air on ESPNU at 8 p.m. CT.