Paradise Jam Championship Game goes down to the wire, Tarleton narrowly falls to Drake

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ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands – There’s one thing for certain about this Tarleton men’s basketball team – they’ll always keep fighting. After falling behind by double figures, it would have been easy to pack it in, but the Texans kept the intensity to tie it up late. Ultimately, Tarleton fell 71-64 to Drake in the Paradise Jam Championship Game.

The Texans (3-2, 0-0 WAC) took the silver medal at the 2022 Paradise Jam on Monday, held in the Virgin Islands, finishing with a 2-1 record overall at the tournament with wins over established NCAA Division I programs Belmont and Boston College, and the loss coming to Drake, the Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorite. The Bulldogs remained undefeated on the year (5-0) with the win. 

Freddy Hicks, who earlier in the day was named the WAC Player of the Week, also garnered Paradise Jam 2022 Men’s All-Tournament Team honors in another jaw-dropping performance to lead the Texans. Hicks scored a career-high 30 points on 10-of-20 shooting, plus 8-of-11 from the free throw line, just missing out on a double-double with nine rebounds and two steals. His 30 points are the most scored by a Texan in a game over the past two seasons.

“Very deserving,” said head coach Billy Gillispie, regarding Hicks receiving All-Tournament Team status. “What a way to debut this season! He is and was everything to us. Had we been able to win the championship, I’m sure he would have been the MVP. He’s a great young man that only cares about winning and playing for his teammates and Tarleton. What a joy to coach. Congrats to him!”

Hicks entered Monday the eighth leading scorer across all of Division I at 23.5 points per game. With his 30 points, he’s now at 25.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, shooting 54.1 percent from the floor. 

Drake got off to a hot start in the title bout, going up 6-0 and then 9-3 while clamping down defensively. Tarleton remained calm after the first timeout and tied it 9-9. The two teams went back-and-forth most of the first half, all the way down to around four minutes remaining and the Bulldogs leading 25-22. Drake ended the half on a 10-3 run to lead by double figures at halftime, 35-25. 

The three-point line was the difference in the first 20 minutes, as Drake made 6-of-11 (.546) from beyond the arc, 12-of-24 overall from the floor. Tarleton got plenty of good looks in the first half but just couldn’t get them to fall, a change of pace from their previous games, something they had to work through coming out of the locker room.

And work through they did. Down 10, 45-35, with under 14 minutes remaining, a game-changing sequence occurred. First Shakur Daniel made a tough layup, then on the other end, Drake seemingly had a dunk, but the ball clanged off the rim. Tarleton grabbed it and hustled down the floor, leading to a Jakorie Smith three-ball that sparked the energy in the team and the gym, showing Tarleton wasn’t going to go away so easily. 

Drake responded with a jumper after a timeout, but Hicks buried a three right back to get within four. The Bulldogs then led 51-45 before Tarleton made another run. Hicks made two free throws, the Texans got a stop, Hicks made another bucket, and then Tiger Booker stole the ball and immediately finished a quick layup to tie the game 51-51 with 7:20 left. Drake, an established D1 program in their own right, kept their composure and took control back from there, ultimately winning by seven to take the Paradise Jam crown. 

“The Paradise Jam was a tremendous experience for the Tarleton Texans,” said Gillispie. “We got to play against three really good teams on a neutral court and the competition was great for our team as we progress through the season towards conference play.”

For the game, Tarleton didn’t have an issue with turnovers (11 compared to 17 forced of Drake), but they were outshot 19-of-39 (.487) to 22-of-59 (.373). Drake kept Tarleton at bay late by making their free throws, going 25-of-31 (.806) from the stripe. 

“Our players enjoyed the experience both on the court and in the ocean,” added Gillispie. The venue was great and the people here were extremely friendly.”

Smith was Tarleton’s second leading scorer at nine points, adding five rebounds. Daniel finished with six points, three rebounds and three assists. Shamir Bogues had four steals and two blocks in 24 minutes, while Booker led the bench with eight points on 3-of-6 shooting and three assists in 21 minutes.

Drake’s Tucker DeVries, the Paradise Jam MVP, had 22 points on a perfect night shooting (5-5 FG, 4-4 3PT, 8-8 FT), adding eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Four of Drake’s starters scored in double figures, including Garrett Sturtz, who had the game’s lone double-double at 13 points (4-7 FG, 5-5 FT), 11 rebounds and three assists. 

“It couldn’t have gone better for our program, other than winning the championship, and I believe the faithful fans that were able to attend had a great experience as well,” commented Gillispie. “Our players are extremely grateful for the Texan faithful and hope that we will fill up Wisdom Gym on Nov 29, when perennial Big Sky champion Weber State visits. It can be the most special Division I, non-conference opponent that has visited Wisdom Gymnasium. Let’s make it special! These guys deserve a sellout and will represent you well.”

The Texans will return from paradise with two large non-conference games looming. On Saturday, the Texans will be at Wichita State for a rematch, tip-off set for 3 p.m. CT. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, the Texans return to Wisdom Gym for the first time in nearly three weeks for one of their toughest non-conference home games in the history of the program. Tarleton will face Weber State at 7 p.m. CT, and will look to pack the house by hosting “White Out Wisdom” with 500 free T-shirts going to attendees.

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