Veteran Tarleton State head coach Lonn Reisman loves proving everyone wrong.
His Texans stunned No. 23 Angelo State, 70-65, in Wisdom Gym on Saturday in front of 2,846, the largest crowd to witness a Tarleton game this season.
The victory was Tarleton’s fifth in six games, and paired with West Texas A&M’s 62-61 loss at Abilene Christian, makes the Texans the first team in league history to qualify for the LSC Championship after a 1-5 start to divisional play.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” Reisman said of reaching the postseason tournament despite his club’s dismal start in the South. “We were down 30 points at halftime of a (LSC tournament) game (against Texas A&M-Kingsville in 2004) and we came back and won, and they said that couldn’t be done either. I love a great challenge.”
The Texans, 18-9 overall and 6-6 in the South, finished tied for fourth in the division. By virtue of tiebreakers, Tarleton takes the four seed over WTAMU and opens conference championship action against Central Oklahoma, the No. 1 seed in the North. Tip-off on Thursday at Bruin Field House in Bartlesville, Okla. is set for 2:30 p.m. It will be the eighth straight tournament appearance by the Texans.
Things looked bleak for Tarleton when Angelo State scored the first five points of the second half to stretch a six-point advantage at the break to 11 at 35-24, but the Texans outscored the Rams, who entered the contest ranked No. 3 in the South Central Region, by a count of 46-30 over the final 18:55.
Eric Williams paved the way with 14 points and 15 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. The senior forward also tallied four of Tarleton’s season-high nine blocked shots.
“Eric has been our go-to guy all year,” Reisman said of Williams. “He’s always going to do whatever needs to be done to win. He has a lot of ability, but he also has a lot of heart.”
Leading the Texans in scoring was Effran Bryant, who hit five 3-point bombs, with 17, while Monquel Pegues and Cortney Hill each joined Williams with 14. Both Pegues, who was 10-12 at the free throw line, and Hill also grabbed six rebounds.
Reisman felt it was one of Pegues’ best games as a Texan.
“He played with a lot of emotion tonight,” Reisman said of the 6-10 senior center. “It was last game on this floor and he really came to play and showed that he didn’t want his senior season to end tonight.”
Angelo’s Lionel Brown, who hit four from deep and went 10-11 at the charity stripe, led all scorers with 28, while Shavar Burch and Ryan Bennett were also in double figures for the Rams with 13 and 11, respectively.
Marlin Cloudy drilled a trey to pull Tarleton with in eight moments after ASU grabbed its biggest lead of the night early in the second half. After a turnover by Bennett, Hill buried another Tarleton 3-ball, and just like that the Texans were down by just five with 18:07 still to play.
Angelo would lead by nine again before Pegues scored four straight and Williams later added a duece to make it 41-39 Angelo with 15:08 left. A Hill jumper made it a two-point game again less than a minute later before Williams sprinted the other way with a steal and finished with an athletic two-handed slam to tie the score at 43-43.
Angelo pulled back ahead by four on two occasions before Tarleton went on an 11-2 push to jump in front for good. Hill converted an old fashioned 3-point play and drilled one from long range to score six points during the rally, which put the Texans up 59-54 with 5:53 left.
Angelo cut its deficit to three before Williams took an alley-oop pass from Cloudy and finished with another big dunk that brought the Wisdom Gym crowd to its feet for the rest of the night.
Tarleton extended its lead to eight at 67-59 with 1:19 to go before Angelo made one final push.
Brown’s final points - and ASU’s for that matter - came on a lay-up to pull the Rams within three with 13 seconds left, but Bryant and Cloudy each hit a free throw to finish the scoring for Tarleton.
The shooting percentages told a tale of two halves, as the Texans hit just 27.6-percent in the first half before connecting on 40.6-percent after the break. Angelo flipped that script, hitting a respectable 39.3-percent in the opening 20 minutes before shooting just 26.3-percent after halftime. Tarleton finished with a slight edge, out-shooting the Rams, 34.4-percent to 31.8.
Reisman said the crowd played a big role in the Tarleton win.
“We had a great crowd for senior night,” he said. “This team was absolutely propelled by this crowd. The people in the this gym willed us to win. We appreciate the student body, the community and everyone who came out to support us. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Texans also couldn’t have done it - it being reaching the conference tournament - without the help of Abilene Christian. The Wildcats’ upset of West Texas A&M looked even less likely than Tarleton’s come-from-behind victory on Saturday. WTAMU led, 61-54, with less than three minutes remaining before ACU finished the contest on an 8-0 roll.
“We got some help from Abilene, but the biggest thing is the way we took care of business on our home floor against a nationally-ranked opponent,” Reisman said. “I’m very proud of our guys. They could have hung it up and quit when we were 1-5 in this division, but they didn’t. They took pride in what they were trying to accomplish and sold out to reach their goals. They deserve this; they’ve earned it.”