Abilene Christian denies UNO trip back to NCAA tourney, wins Southland final

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Troy Green

KATY, Texas – Six years ago, Abilene Christian finished 2-12 in the Southland Conference. Six years later, the Wildcats stand atop the Southland Conference.

A punishing interior game and a swarming defense keyed No. 2-seed ACU to a 77-60 victory over No.-4 seed New Orleans in Saturday night’s Southland Conference men’s basketball tournament championship game, putting the Wildcats into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Division I Tournament for the first time in program history.

“It’s just a dream come true,” said ACU (27-6) forward Jaren Lewis, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after scoring 20 points and grabbing six rebounds in the title win. “When you’re younger watching college basketball, that’s what you dream about all the time. This is what I was dreaming about when I came to ACU, like ‘one day, this is where I want to be.’ Coach G (Joe Golding) sold me on that, and we finally got it.”

Lewis was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Jaylen Franklin and Payten Ricks, New Orleans’ Scott Plaisance and Lamar’s Josh Nzeakor.

The Wildcats forced 20 turnovers and never trailed after taking a 4-2 lead in the first two minutes of the game, taking as much as a 22-point lead late in the contest. ACU scored 48 of its points in the paint, which was a key reason why they shot a solid 56.1 percent from the field.

“We wanted to be the first team at Abilene Christian to make the tournament,” said Franklin, who had 16 points and six assists. “It’s a big surprise, but we stuck through it and trusted each other.”

“I’m going to sit back, and like I did (Saturday night), I’m going to sit back and watch,” said Golding. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. If it’s anybody that deserves it’s these three seniors (Franklin, Lewis and Hayden Farquhar).”

Playing in their first Southland Conference tournament, the Wildcats looked like a team familiar with being in a championship setting.

ACU thrived inside from the outset as a mixture of fast breaks and well-timed passes resulted in a host of layups and short jumpers by the Wildcats, who scored 20 of their first 25 points from the paint. Several of those caming during a 13-0 run over a stretch of 5:12 midway in the first half put them up by as much as 34-19 at the 5:02 mark.

New Orleans shook off its shooting malaise with a 7-0 run to begin climbing back into the contest, but the 24-10 deficit in the paint was a major culprit behind their 40-29 halftime deficit.

A Bryson Robinson trey to open the second half got the Privateers within 40-32 but they could not whittle away at the Wildcats’ lead despite ACU opening the half by missing seven of their first 10 shots. However, Lewis’ short jumper helped the Wildcats regain an offensive groove that helped them stretch the lead to 54-40 at the 10:53 mark of the half.

New Orleans was unable to maintain the breakneck pace that ACU had established early in the game and by the time they tried to get into a groove, it was too late.

“We kind of got caught playing their style. It fits for them,” said Robinson. “It was their game plan. They executed it and it worked well.”

The Wildcats began to put the game away over the next two minutes. A tip-in from Joe Pleasant was followed by a dunk from Lewis and a layup from Franklin extended the lead to 61-46 and forced Slessinger to call time out with 8:30 on the clock.

Showing their blue-collar spirit, the Privateers mustered one last run, bringing the lead again down to eight following a Plaisance free throw. Farquhar – who missed all nine of his attempts in Friday’s semifinal win over Sam Houston State – then delivered the decisive blows in the form of consecutive three-pointers to put the Wildcats on course for the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the loss, the Privateers will be heading to postseason play for a third straight season, as they were informed shortly after the game they would be a part of the College Invitational Tournament (CIT) and plan to host a first round game on Wednesday night.

“We’re excited,” said Plaisance. “The season is broken up into several pieces, and postseason is one of my favorites. To go out there one more time and put New Orleans on my chest is definitely an honor.”

“It’s a great testament to our program,” said Privateers coach Mark Slessinger. “It’s another compliment to the university as a whole and their investment in building a championship program.”

For Golding and the Wildcats, Sunday continues a remarkable journey.

“I’m going to let these guys enjoy it,” he said. “We’re going to go down there and compete. I don’t know who we’re going to play. I’m sure we’ll be an underdog, but we’re going to play hard and represent this conference in a first-class manner.”

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