LAS VEGAS – Tarleton has officially entered March Madness.
In the Texans’ WAC Tournament opener on Tuesday, they held off multiple UTRGV rallies to win 74-70 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas. The victory will forever be etched as the first NCAA Division I conference tournament win in Tarleton Athletics history.
The 7-seed Texans now advance to the WAC Tournament quarterfinals, where they’ll play the 2-seed Utah Valley Wolverines on Thursday at 8 p.m. CT at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“What a great day for Tarleton basketball,” head coach Billy Gillispie said. “To win so soon in our reclassification is pretty amazing. Our players are as tough as they come. No one plays harder for each other or for their school than this version of the Texans. It’s nice to get the first win and be the first program to win.”
The Texans (17-15) got a true taste of what March Madness has to offer, a glowing nickname typically reserved for the NCAA Tournament, but it was a classic in the WAC Tournament Tuesday night. Tarleton led over the 10-seed UTRGV (15-17) for 37:33 of the 40 minutes, but like most conference postseason games, it was never truly over.
“It was a great win, our starters got us out to a fantastic start,” Gillispie said. “But when we got in foul trouble and had to play without Shak and Shamir, our replacements other than Jakorie didn’t hold the fort. We picked it back up in the second half and made big play after big play to win our first postseason game. I believe there will be many more because of the toughness, spirit and determination.”
Clearly energized to be playing in their first D1 conference tournament, the Texans raced out to a 21-4 lead, using a 21-2 run after giving up the opening basket to lead by 17 just over nine minutes in. Several players were contributors early on, with Garry Clark scoring Tarleton’s first D1 conference tournament points, Lue Williams adding on with a jumper, plus Shamir Bogues and Jakorie Smith foreshadowed what they would do the entire game, combining for 12 of Tarleton’s first 21 points.
But, in a game of runs, UTRGV refused to end their WAC Tournament run in the first 10 minutes, and answered with a 9-0 burst to get back within eight. They chipped away the remainder of the first half to get within one-possession at the break, 31-28.
In the second half, with the Texan lead down to one, Bogues and Smith teamed up again to give the purple and white some breathing room, putting Tarleton back up seven, 37-30, with 17:25 to play. After a Smith jumper at the 13-minute mark made it a five-point Texan lead, UTRGV scored five straight for the first tie since 2-2, then added a three after two Tarleton free throws for their first lead since it was 2-0. The lead lasted a whole 16 seconds, however, thanks to a Bogues drive to put Tarleton back in front 50-49.
The Bogues drive started an 11-0 run for the Texans, with Freddy Hicks adding four free throws, Smith an and-one, plus a towering dunk by Coreyoun Rushin. A little while later, Tarleton again went on a run, 8-0 this time to go up 15 with 5:26 left, 67-52. The most memorable sequence of the night started on the defensive end, just after a Smith layup, Bogues stayed in the backcourt and drew the offensive foul. On the ensuing in-bound, Bogues splashed a rainbow arc long jumper, and with the Vaqueros out of sorts, the Texans kept pressing on the in-bound, which Rushin stole and found a streaking Hicks for the one-handed hammer.
With their season on the line, the Vaqueros gave their all in a last-ditch effort to get back in it. First they went on a 7-0 run to get within eight at the 3:11 mark. After Smith buried two free throws to make it a 10-point game, UTRGV went on another 7-0 run to make it a one-possession game with about 90 ticks left. With Tarleton up three but without the ball, the Texans forced a Will Johnston three-point miss with 52 seconds left, then after a timeout, Tiger Booker worked the lane and got an open layup to make it a two-possession game with 24 seconds remaining, 71-66. UTRGV’s All-WAC First Team guard/forward Justin Johnson made a quick three on the other end to cut it to two.
With all of the pressure imaginable facing Smith at the free throw line, he calmly canned them both to put the Texans back up two possessions, 73-69. It still wasn’t over though, as UTRGV induced a Tarleton foul on a three-point attempt. Johnson made the first but missed the next two, and Tarleton’s Williams corralled the rebound. He split his pair to put Tarleton back up four, 74-70, and one more defensive stop sealed the win for the Texans.
Smith stepped up in the biggest game of the season with career-highs in points and rebounds, recording 26 points (7-15 FG, 11-11 FT) and eight rebounds in 34 minutes off the bench, adding two steals. This was his first 20-plus point game of his career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Hicks and Bogues did what they’ve done all season – produce. Hicks tallied 18 points (8-8 FT), eight rebounds and a steal in 39 minutes, while Bogues finished with 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, five assists and two steals in 37 minutes. Shakur Daniel dished out four assists in 31 minutes, and Rushin secured seven rebounds in 18 minutes as a reserve.
The Vaqueros and Texans entered the game as two of the top three teams across all of NCAA Division I in getting to the free throw line, a battle that Tarleton won Tuesday night. The Texans made 23-of-26 (.885) from the stripe compared to UTRGV’s 9-of-16 (.563) clip.
Tarleton attempted just seven three-point shots, shooting 3-of-7 (.429), while UTRGV was forced to go for threes down most of the game, making 11-of-32 (.344) from long range.
The Texans won the turnover battle for the 26th time in 32 games, forcing 16 turnovers to 12 giveaways, and outrebounded the Vaqueros 34-26. Tarleton is now 12-1 this season when outrebounding their opponent.
Tarleton also removed any stain that was had from dropping the first two matchups against the Vaqueros this season with a WAC Tournament win to knock them out of the event. The Texans improved to 5-3 all-time against UTRGV.
The Texans now turn their attention to the Wolverines, the Western Athletic Conference regular season champions who advanced to the quarterfinals on a bye. The two teams met just once this season, and it was a memorable one in Stephenville, as Tarleton routed the top team in the WAC 77-58 less than two weeks ago.
“Utah Valley is the WAC champion and we had a very lucky night back at Wisdom Gym against them,” Gillispie said. “They are complete and have had a great season. It will be a monumental challenge but we are fortunate and excited to be playing them.”
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