Tarleton nearly pulls off upset at No. 3 Gonzaga
SPOKANE – If any further proof was needed to validate Tarleton's placement on the big stage of D1 college basketball was needed, Monday night in the Inland Northwest was it.
Six days ago, players and members of the Texans' coaching staff sat glued to their television sets in a hotel in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as top-ranked Gonzaga routed No. 2 UCLA by 20 points in a neutral site affair.
Nov. 29 was a date emblazoned in the program's collective conscious as soon as its 2021-22 schedule was released.
Tarleton vs. No. 1 Gonzaga in basketball's toughest venue – The Kennel in Spokane, Washington.
Head coach Billy Gillispie said the Bulldogs, who occupied the top spot in the Associated Press top-25 at the time for 20 weeks, were one of the best college teams he had seen play in some time.
Fast forward to Monday, when all Tarleton did in the highest-profile game in school history was come within a few possessions of pulling off the biggest upset in D1 basketball in 32 years.
The Bulldogs (6-1) entered as 31.5-point betting favorites and winners of 55 straight contests at home. Yet at halftime, Tarleton was within a point of Gonzaga at 26-25. Tarleton then led 30-28 with 17:10 to play, deadlocked the score at 43 points apiece near the 10-minute mark in the second half and were within two points of the Zags with 5:34 remaining at 49-47.
Gonzaga separated with a 10-2 run over the ensuing three-and-a-half minutes and ultimately won, 64-55, in front of a sellout crowd of 6,000 fans.
But in the ultimate test in any team's season, Tarleton more than passed.
The Bulldogs dipped two spots in the AP top-25 following an 84-81 loss to Duke on Friday in Las Vegas. The loss, though did little to dampen the belief that Tarleton drew the nation's best bet to cut down the nets in the Big Dance come April.
"There is not a team we will play all year that plays harder and plays better defense than Tarleton," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said prior to tipoff.
Few, who is in his 23rd year as the head man at Gonzaga, and his words proved prophetic.
The Bulldogs boasted the nation's No. 4 scoring offense in the country entering the game. Tarleton held the Gonzaga to its fewest number of points scored inside The Kennel in five years and 36 points below its scoring average (90 ppg) this season. The Texans also forced the Zags into 16 turnovers and limited the hosts to a season-worst 21 percent clip (4-19) from downtown.
The best player on the floor wasn't consensus first team All-American Drew Timmie or Chet Holmgren, the potential top choice in the 2022 NBA Draft. Rather, the distinction belonged to Tarleton guard Tahj Small.
The 6-5 senior went off for a career-high 25 points – 17 of which came in the second half – along with seven rebounds. Small delivered from long range at critical junctures all evening.
Tarleton trailed 10-3 to open the game but Small canned his first of five 3-pointers at the 9:35 mark of the first half to even the score at 12-12. Small's second triple of the evening was the centerpiece of a 5-0 scoring run that drew Tarleton within a point of the Zags at 20-19 with under 5:00 to go in the first half. His third long bomb staked the Texans to their 30-28 edge. Small scored 10 straight points for the Texans beginning with the snipe from the top of the key. Following a pair of midrange jumpers, Small connected again from deep to knot the score at 37-37 with 14:00 to go.
The Durham, North Carolina native was also a focal point of Tarleton's double teams on the 7-0 Holmgren and Timmie, who stands 6-10. Playing the four spot, Small, position-mate Shamir Bogues and Freddy Hickes doubled off the Zags frontcourt and intercepted passing lanes all evening. The Texans limited Timmie to a season-low 10 points and just one made field goal.
With the Bulldogs clinging to a 49-47 at the 5:34 mark of the second half lead following four straight points by Montre Gipson (9 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds), it appeared Gillispie forced Few and Gonzaga to play to Tarleton's style. Both Holmgren and Timmie were on the bench, as Gonzaga inserted a smaller lineup to combat Tarleton's half-court pressure.
Small's fifth-and-final 3-pointer had Tarleton within seven points at 61-54 with 1:03 left following Gonzaga's decisive run. The teams then traded scoring possessions the rest of the way with Tarleton forced to foul.
Junior Javontae Hopkins – the lone holdover from Tarleton's D2 era – joined Small in picking as good a game as any to deliver his best performance in Purple and White. Hopkins, 6-0, posted D1 career highs in points (11) and rebounds (five).
Monday's game marked the second time this season Tarleton enjoyed a positive turnover differential against the nation's No. 3 ranked team. The Texans committed just eight giveaways on Monday. Against then-No. 3 Kansas on Nov. 12, Tarleton turned the Jayhawks over 13 times compared to nine turnovers of their own.
Gonzaga outrebounded Tarleton 43-27. The Texans shot 37.5 percent (21-56) from the field.
Tarleton fell to 1-6 with the result but has been competitive in every defeat against arguably the nation's toughest schedule. The Texans were within one possession of No. 20 Michigan on Wednesday with under 4:00 to go in an 11-point loss, were up seven points on Stanford in the second half of their season opener three weeks ago and fought the Jayhawks the whole way at historic Allen Fieldhouse.
The Texans now receive a well-deserved extended stay in Stephenville. Five of Tarleton's next six games are inside Wisdom Gym, beginning with its first "D1 vs. D1" nonconference home matchup vs. Charleston Southern at 6 p.m. on Sunday. The game kicks off a three-game homestand. Tarleton then faces Dallas Christian and Southwestern Assemblies of God on Dec. 7-8.