Save the best for last.
The final game of the men’s NCAA Tournament first round was, of course, a thrilling bracket-buster. Abilene Christian, a mid-major program that just joined Division I in 2013, stunned No. 3 Texas — a Final Four contender — 53-52 on Saturday.
The Wildcats (24-4) are the latest Cinderella, following in the footsteps of Oral Roberts (upset Ohio State on Friday), No. 13 North Texas (upset Purdue on Friday) and No. 13 Ohio (upset Virginia on Saturday).
Abilene Christian forward Joe Pleasant – a 59% free-throw shooter – made two free throws with 1.2 seconds left to seal the huge win.
Senior guard Coryon Mason led the charge for the Wildcats offensively, finishing with 11 points – including a crucial running lay-up with 4:29 left to tie the score at 47 and take back the game’s momentum. It was a collective effort for coach Joe Golding’s team, with Pleasant (11 points and seven rebounds) coming up big against a more athletic Texas team.
The Wildcats, the Southland Conference champions, didn’t beat the Big 12 tournament champion Longhorns with a hot-shooting offense, only going 3-for-18 from three-point range. But they took down Texas with hustle plays, out-rebounding the Longhorns 39-32 and forcing them into a season-high 23 turnovers. Abilene had 12 second-chance points, compared to zero for Texas.
Those defensive stats should come as no surprise, though. Abilene Christian leads the country in turnover margin and has a stifling defense that ranks seventh nationally with 60.5 points allowed.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin told reporters after his team’s first-round win over BYU: “Obviously they have a great coach. If somebody forces 20 (plus) turnovers a game, that’s unbelievable. Somebody told me Texas had 23 turnovers. They’ve got seniors. They’ve got serious guards. That means Abilene Christian is really, really good.”
Andrew Jones led Texas with 13 points. The loss brings a disappointing close to Texas’ season, finishing 19-7. Coach Shaka Smart’s job status was in question at the start of the season and now a disappointing NCAA Tournament exit could restart that narrative.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.