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ACU forward Joe Pleasant stepped to the line trailing by one with just over a second left. A 58 percent free throw shooter, Pleasant would need to hit one to tie the game at 52 and two to seal an upset over Texas for the 14-seed Wildcats.
Pleasant calmly stepped to the line and made both. Those two shots served as the dagger to Texas’ 2020-21 season, and as the final nail in the coffin for a much earlier-than-anticipated postseason exit for Shaka Smart’s team.
The Longhorns’ 53-52 loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament occurred not because of Pleasant’s newfound ability at the line, nor because of the whistle against Matt Coleman that sent Pleasant to the stripe in the first place. Abilene Christian’s unique defensive strategy of hard denial on every single pass flustered Texas for all 40 minutes in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
“They lead the country in forcing turnovers,” Smart said. “They force over 20 a game. We certainly could have done a much better job being sound with the ball, particularly our guards.”
The Longhorns committed a season-high 23 turnovers on 60 possessions. Those turnovers resulted in extra scoring attempts for the Wildcats, enough to pull off a monumental upset and deprive Smart of his first tournament win at Texas.
Abilene Christian’s strategy forced UT to forfeit the ball on almost 40 percent of its possessions. Texas had a week to prepare for the way the Wildcats would play defense. The week was not enough.
Coleman committed a season-high seven turnovers. Texas’ three main guards of Coleman, Courtney Ramey, and Andrew Jones combined for 15 turnovers.
“I thought their aggressiveness really had our guards on our heels for much of the night,” Smart said.
ACU shot 30 percent from the floor and a paltry 17 percent from behind the arc. Meanwhile, Texas hit 45 percent of its field goals and splashed a respectable 35 percent from three, plus 82 percent of its free throws.
But Texas’ 23 turnovers allowed ACU to take 67 shots compared to Texas’ 40. Those extra possessions created by ACU’s defensive strategy were what kept the Wildcats in the game and in the lead for much of crunch time.
Texas nearly managed to withstand the ACU defensive effort. With 15 seconds left, Jones splashed a three from just in front of the Texas bench to take a one point lead after an abysmal offensive second half.
“At the end of the game, Matt made a heck of a play and created a great shot for Andrew,” Smart said. “Andrew made a terrific shot and put us up one.”
ACU drove on the ensuing possession and had an attempt from Damien Daniels blocked by Kai Jones. In the battle for the loose ball, Pleasant emerged victorious and Coleman was ruled to have fouled him during the act of shooting.
“It just doesn’t feel real,” Coleman said. “I feel like I’m fixing to wake up from a bad dream.”
Pleasant’s trip to the line resulted in a storybook ending for Abilene Christian, and an abject nightmare for the Longhorns.
“Lot of tears in the locker room right now,” Smart said. “A lot of guys extremely upset about the way the game ended, the fact that we have to go home now. Really disappointed, everybody is.”
The score line was an embodiment of the entire game. Texas struggled to score in the first half but shut out the Wildcats over the period’s final 7:13. UT could only create a five-point lead, with the final two points coming via a Kai Jones dunk just before the buzzer.
In addition to creating turnovers, ACU attacked the boards all Saturday evening. The undersized Wildcats out-rebounded Texas 36 to 31, including a massive 18 to 5 advantage on the offensive boards.
“The 18 offensive rebounds was a huge, huge difference-maker throughout the game and obviously in that last play,” Smart said. “If they don’t get the rebound, the foul doesn’t get called. We wrap up that possession, and we probably win the game.”
Coleman was not a factor in the first half, playing only 10 minutes due to two personal fouls. In the second half, he found some of his Big 12 Tournament skill but turned the ball over five times compared to one assist.
The senior guard scored nine points in what could be his last game in a Longhorn uniform. Another player potentially playing his last game in burnt orange, Jericho Sims, was mostly a non-factor despite his 10 points.
Four of his 10 points came on two first-half dunks. He attempted and made a single field goal in the second half, one week after accounting for 21 points and 14 rebounds in the Big 12 Tournament title.
Andrew Jones led all scorers with 13 points. Kai Jones added 11.
But Texas combined efforts accumulated just 52 points. UT failed to eclipse 30 points in either half, and, once again, Smart failed to move past the first round at Texas.
“Tonight, obviously we didn’t play our best, and again, Abilene Christian deserves a lot of credit for that with the way they defended,” Smart said.
Cover photo courtesy of the NCAA/Getty Images