Put aside that Joe Pleasant isn’t a great free throw shooter.
It’s hard to do, especially when the Abilene Christian forward strode to the line late Saturday night against Texas with just over a second left, and two chances from the stripe to make history. 58.5 percent. That number was, admittedly, unmistakable. And it’s what understandably got headlines as Pleasant waited out a timeout and calmly sank both shots to give the Wildcats their first NCAA Tournament win in program history.
“I knew he was making them,” Wildcats coach Joe Golding said after the game. “Joe Pleasant works harder than anyone in our program.”
It was a fitting ending. Two free throws, from an unlikely source, to claim a historic win for ACU by the slimmest of margins. It was never easy throughout the night inside Lucas Oil Stadium against the No. 3 seed Longhorns.
The Wildcats were doing what they do, and flummoxing a veteran Texas backcourt into a season-high 23 turnovers. But as they scrambled and attacked with fervor on the defensive end of the ball, they were having their own difficulties scoring and creating anything resembling a comfortable margin, even as they led for most of the second half.
“I’m really proud of my guys, we showed tremendous heart. We had a ton of adversity, couldn’t get the ball in the basket, couldn’t find a way to score but just continued to guard,” Golding said in the postgame press conference. “When you’re making shots you need to find a different way to win.”
That’s just what the Wildcats did. They cobbled together just enough offense, from the pair of now-historic Pleasant free throws, to a deep, contested three pointer floated in by Makhi Morris, to a flurry of banked in circus shots made by Reggie Miller and Coryon Mason.
In the end, the Wildcats shot just 29.4 percent and made that single three pointer by Morris early in the second half. That’s the standard, tried-and-true recipe for the 14/3 upset, especially against a No. 3 seed coming off its first-ever Big 12 Tournament title and loaded with veteran guards.
But ACU found a way, just as they have done in their steady ascent under Golding the last eight years. On Saturday night, it earned them a date with UCLA and a shot at the Sweet 16. In the bigger picture, it may have ushered another mid-major fixture on the national scene.
“We just beat the University of Texas, little old Abilene Christian in West Texas,” Golding said after complimenting a talented Longhorns team. “We built a program that went toe-to-toe with the University of Texas. It’s an incredible story, it’s what March is about.”
Indeed it is. Hyperbole or not, Golding called his Wildcats the worst team in Division I when they came up from the Division II ranks in 2013. And unlike some other recent Division I debutants, ACU wasn’t bringing a ton of recent success at the lower level up with it, having not made a Division II NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999.
Nonetheless, things began to simmer in West Texas.
Golding, a former Wildcat guard, took over two years before the transition and within three seasons in the Southland began to establish ACU as more than a cellar dweller. The Wildcats went 8-10 in league play in 2015-16 but, more importantly, had begun to clearly establish the identity that would ultimately carry them to previously unimaginable heights.
That season, ACU finished in the top 100 in the country in forcing turnovers, kicking off a run that would see them finish in the top 29 each season since and really ratcheting it up the past two years. In last year’s pandemic-shortened season, ACU forced opponents into coughing it up 26.1 percent of the time, the second-best rate in the country. As an encore? The Wildcats upped it to 27 percent this year, the top rate in the country.
Shaka Smart, who knows a thing or two about pressure, saw it firsthand Saturday night.
“We weren’t able to sustain it, we’ve been able to play with very good poise all year, and tonight again, Abilene Christian deserves a lot of credit on the way they got their hands on the basketball,” the Texas head coach said.
It’s an intensity the country was treated to, as the Wildcats flew around the perimeter pressing and recovering constantly. Longhorns point guard Courtney Ramey was bloodied on inadvertent contact on a rebound late in the game, but it was a fitting scene for how the Wildcats had flustered the Texas guards, never allowing a talented attack to establish any rhythm.
With that style of play, it’s hard not to compare ACU to its purple-clad Southland (and soon to be, WAC) brethren in Stephen F. Austin. But to put the Wildcats’ climb in more perspective, they were four seasons away from jumping to Division I when the Jacks made their first NCAA Tournament breakthrough in 2009.
Will that type of scrambling effort be something the college basketball populace becomes used to in March?
It seems entirely likely with ACU riding a wave of momentum the past three seasons. They’ve gone a combined 42-11 in league play, made two NCAA Tournament appearances, carved a distinct identity and parlayed it into a move to the WAC next season. This will up the ante, creating the drool-worthy prospect of WAC powerhouse New Mexico State, reigning league tournament champion Grand Canyon and a Southland trio of ACU, SFA and Sam Houston State creating a quality mid-major league.
And most importantly, the win against Texas wasn’t the culmination of a single wave of impressive players.
“There’s been a lot of great players that have come through our program, some that didn’t win as many games when we were building this program,” he said in reflecting on how far the program has come.
The team that earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019 — when they faced No. 2 Kentucky as a No. 15 seed — included an impressive class. The quartet of Jaylen Franklin, Jaren Lewis, Jalone Friday and Payten Ricks were integral to the Wildcats’ initial climb to the upper tier of the Southland.
Critically, none of those four were on the roster for Saturday’s historic win. Instead, Golding had turned over the program with adept recruiting, landing players like rail-thin but tenacious defender Reggie Miller after the senior struggled for playing time at Texas State. Pleasant and 5’7 guard Damien Daniels — who had no other Division I offers per Verbal Commits — are part of a Kansas City area pipeline Golding and his staff have tapped into.
Kolton Kohl, ACU’s star center, was held in check against Texas (6 points, 5 rebounds), but is a holdover from that breakthrough team that fell to Kentucky. ACU was no match for the high major foe that day, falling by 35 points. The story, however, was very different, Saturday in Indianapolis.
“This is what March is about in this country, we celebrate this,” Golding said.
The way things are looking in West Texas, there may be plenty of celebrations to come.