Tarleton vanquishes Vaqueros, earns first true Division I win
EDINBURG – Emily Cunningham picked as good of an afternoon as any to deliver her best offensive performance of the year.
Cunningham racked up a career-high 20 points on 7-10 shooting in a hastily scheduled midweek game at UTRGV on Wednesday.
The result of Cunningham's efforts? A 79-63 victory over the Vaqueros and most significant win of the Texans' debut Division I season.
The triumph snapped a seven-game losing streak for the Texans and was the team's first win over both a Division I and Western Athletic Conference opponent. It was also the first road victory of the 2020-21 campaign for Tarleton (4-10, 0-4 WAC).
The 6-0 forward's scoring output was optimally timed. Tarleton was just four days removed from a defeat at Seattle U in which the Texans shot a season-low 23 percent from the field.
But against UTRGV, the Texans had no problem filling up the offensive stat sheet. Tarleton connected at a season-high 52.7% and scored its third-most points in a single game this season. The Texans' 79 points were its most in a road or neutral site game this year and the team's largest scoring figure since its 95-27 win over Champion Christian on Dec. 12.
Marissa Escamilla (17 points) and Iyana Dorsey (16 points) joined Cunningham in double-digit scoring.
Seven of Dorsey's points came in the first quarter, as she and Cunningham staked Tarleton to an early 21-12 lead. Dorsey's nine assists were also the most in a single game for the freshman and most by any Texan in any of the squad's 14 games.
Tarleton used an inside-outside game to create early separation from the Vaqueros. The Texans converted six field goals – three of which came from downtown – and got to the line on five separate possessions.
The Texans led by as many as 17 points in the game's first 20 minutes – a 31-14 high point at the 5:28 mark of the first half that was the team's largest lead of the half. UTRGV closed the second frame on a 15-8 scoring spurt to trim the Texans' advantage to 10 points.
Ball movement and sound defensive positioning set up easy looks at the basket throughout the entire game for Tarleton. The Texans' 20 assists were a season-high. Tarleton also enjoyed a 22-7 advantage in points off turnovers. All eight players who entered the game for Tarleton recorded at least one assist.
Dorsey and fellow freshman guard Hailey Ibarra ran point for Tarleton throughout the ballgame. Ibarra, a walk-on from Glen Rose, recorded a season-high 18 minutes played in games vs. Division I opposition and finished with four points while setting up her teammates with a variety of looks in half-court offensive sets.
Tarleton benefited from a strong all-around effort by sophomore guard Jayci Morton through the contest's first 20 minutes. Morton, a Stephenville High School graduate, had five points and rebounds apiece at the break in more than 15 minutes off the bench. The 5-11 guard consistently checked UTRGV leading scorer Amara Graham and spelled Dorsey for stretches at the point guard position. Morton finished with eight points, six boards and three assists in a season-high 33 minutes.
UTRGV, though, did not surrender the game without a fight. The Vaqueros extended their scoring run from the first half to 26-8 to take a 40-39 lead with 6:31 left in the period. Tarleton promptly regained the lead off a pair of free throws from Lucy Benson and catch-and-release finish inside by Escamilla.
Cunningham then ensured the Vaqueros 46-43 lead at the 4:44 mark of the third quarter was their final time ahead on the scoreboard. The Hill College (TX) transfer converted back-to-back and-one opportunities off looks at the top of the key to put Tarleton back in front 50-46.
The Texans took a 59-56 edge into the final frame and closed out the affair with their strongest quarter. Tarleton methodically closed the game with a 20-4 scoring run to lead 79-60 – it's largest advantage of the game – with 1:20 remaining and seal the victory.
Escamilla nearly had her sixth-career double-double, finishing with a team-high nine rebounds. The 5-9 junior is averaging 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds over Tarleton's last five games. Benson and senior Kaitlyn Guillory were not far behind Escamilla on the glass, tallying eight and six rebounds, respectively.
The win came in spite Tarleton struggling at the foul line, usually a team strength. The Texans 14-25 (56 percent) was its lowest percentage at the charity stripe of the season. Tarleton entered averaging more than 15 made free throws per game and having hit 20-or-more on three separate occasions.
Ultimately, the free throw struggles proved to be a moot point, as Tarleton led for more than 33 minutes of the game.
The victory counts as a nonconference win for Tarleton despite the two teams' shared WAC affiliation. The game was officially announced on Tuesday following the postponement of Tarleton's previously scheduled home series with Utah Valley on Friday and Saturday.
Tarleton returns to conference play on Monday against Grand Canyon (9-2, 1-1 WAC). The game tips off at 7 p.m. at the GCU Arena in Phoenix and will be the first of a back-to-back series between the Texans and Lopes.