STEPHENVILLE – For the first time since 2012 and on the Division I stage, the battle for bragging rights along a 90-mile stretch of Interstate 20 returned to the Cowboy Capital.
Tarleton and Abilene Christian renewed their regional rivalry on Saturday in a Western Athletic Conference affair.
The return of a once-annual matchup was greeted with palpable energy and buzz inside Wisdom Gym. An announced audience of 2,884 spectators – the largest crowd of Tarleton’s D1 era – packed the stands as soon as the doors opened one hour prior to tipoff. Spirit groups jockeyed for position along rows of chairback seats on the east end of the facility. A mostly pro-Tarleton crowd strained in anticipation each time the Texans and Wildcats put their high-octane pressure defenses on display.
Unfortunately for the hosts, ACU claimed the first-of-two meetings between the teams this season by a score of 77-63.
The win was the Wildcats’ first in Stephenville since 1998 and snapped Tarleton’s 14-game home winning streak over ACU. The series now sits at 46-36 all-time and 33-11 since 1988 in favor of the Texans.
Tarleton is now 11-14 overall and 6-6 in conference play with six games remaining in the 2020-21 campaign.
The Texans and Wildcats conclude the regular season with a rematch on March 5 in Abilene.
Both teams’ pace and offensive output matched the enthusiasm that pulsated throughout the crowd in the first half.
The Texans and Wildcats each shot above 50 percent combined through the first 20 minutes en route to a 37-37 gridlock entering halftime.
Tarleton knocked down 15-26 (58 percent) of its shots and led for 15:42 of the first half.
A 14-4 Tarleton run that spanned nearly five minutes gave the Texans a 21-14 edge with 11:49 to go. The Wildcats trimmed the Texans’ advantage down to two points but back-to-back buckets from Montre Gipson and Shamir Bogues maintained Tarleton’s lead at 25-19 with 9:49 to go in the half. A 3-pointer from Noah McDavid – his second of two in the first half – then kept Tarleton in front at 30-25. ACU briefly regained the lead at 33-32 at the four-minute mark of the frame before Tarleton countered with a pair of free throws by Gipson and an off-balance floater by Javontae Hopkins.
The Texans limited opportunities for ACU, which leads the nation in turnovers forced per game (24), to get out in transition throughout the half. Tarleton limited its giveaways to seven in the first half and finished with 15 turnovers for the game.
Tarleton, though, was held scoreless over the final two minutes of the half as ACU pulled even.
The cold spell carried over to the second half. Tarleton knocked down just three field goals in the first 10 minutes and shot 29 percent (7-24) from the field in the half.
ACU scored 13 of the first 14 points on the strength of a trio of 3-pointers out of the intermission to assume a 50-38 lead five minutes into the frame.
Gipson rattled off 11 of his game-high 23 points over the ensuing six minutes to will Tarleton back into the ballgame. An and-one finish by Bogues then made the affair a one-possession game at 56-54 with 9:52 remaining
But it was as close as Tarleton would come to evening the scoreboard the rest of the way.
The Wildcats then scored on five straight possessions to increase their edge to 67-54, then took their largest lead of the evening at 71-54 with 4:32 remaining off a pair of fast break buckets. Tarleton went more than five minutes without a field goal in that stretch.
Gipson’s 21-point effort marked the 35th time he has scored in double figures in his two-year Texan career.
Bogues delivered a 12-point, six-rebound effort while McDavid added 10 points of his own to join Gipson in double digits. Both Bogues and McDavid played the full 40 minutes.
ACU had a 24-13 advantage in points off turnovers and scored 44 of its points in the paint.
Tarleton now concludes its three-game homestand on Wednesday vs. Utah Valley. The Wolverines and Texans met on New Year’s Day in Orem in what proved to be a 77-55 UVU win. The Texans were without five players and two coaches in the contest due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. and the game will air on ESPN+.
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