INDIANAPOLIS – Joe Pleasant slowed his breath and calmed down.
At the most punchy moment of Abilene Christian’s college career, Pleasant’s two free throws were perfect from a point where he’s had problems in the past.
As he intercepted one final pass of desperation from Texas, Pleasant and the rest of his teammates broke out in a celebration that ran off the pitch and almost into the stands.
Another double-digit seed continues in the NCAA tournament at the expense of the flagship school in Abilene Christian’s home state.
“We just beat the University of Texas. Little old Abilene Christian in West Texas developed a head-to-toe program with the University of Texas, and it’s an incredible story,” said Wildcats trainer Joe Golding . “That’s what March is about.”
Abilene Christian and his frantic, devastating defense got Coach Shaka Smart and Texas out of the NCAA tournament again in the first round when the Wildcats with the 14th seed stunned the Longhorns with the third seed 53-52 on Saturday night.
Pleasant, a 58.8% foul shooter of the season, made two free throws 1.2 seconds ahead, and the Wildcats shocked their rivals in their first inter-school meeting.
Abilene Christian (24: 4) was a fourth surprise in a first round that was marked by two years of excitement. She was the fourth team ranked 13th or less to reach the round of 32 in that NCAA tournament, joining Oral Roberts in 15th place and No. 13 seed Ohio and North Texas.
“We needed March Madness, man. We needed some kind of normalcy for our country,” Golding said. “We needed people to fill in brackets. We needed people to cheer on the underdog.”
The purple-clad fans cheered the Wildcats a lot as they gave the bigger, more talented Longhorns all sorts of headaches and got just enough push to claim their first NCAA tournament win on their second appearance.
Pleasant finished the race with 11 points, as did Coryon Mason for the Wildcats. Abilene Christian was blown away by Kentucky two years ago when it first traveled to the NCAA tournament.
Now the Wildcats will face UCLA No. 11 in the second round on Monday.
“I felt like two years ago we were happy to be there for the first time,” said Pleasant. “Then we are ready to face another challenge, not only to be here but also to compete and get some wins.”
Andrew Jones scored 13 points for Texas (19-8) and was almost the hero. Jones scored two free throws 56 seconds ahead and his 3-pointer 14 seconds ahead put the Longhorns 52-51 ahead.
ACU had another chance. Damien Daniels drove to the basket, but his shot was blocked by Kai Jones. Pleasant was the first to get his hands on the rebound, and Matt Coleman III was called to a foul that caused Smart to drop to his knees on the sideline.
“It was a loose ball. We both went for it. He got to the ball first and tossed it up and they called me a foul. The referee called a foul so I think it was a foul,” Coleman said.
After a break, Pleasant calmly hit both free throws. Then he intercepted one final Texas Despair pass on midfield, turning it into the Longhorns’ 23rd turnover, and sparking a wildcat celebration that went off the pitch.
Pleasant waved his arms at the crowd, urged fans to make some noise, and put his hand to his ear before being attacked by teammates. Other players tended to have ACU supporters in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium who were definitely not socially distant during the celebration.
“I imagined the free throws before I shot them,” said Pleasant. “I was just trying to enter the rim, just lock myself in and block out the noise.”
There were heroes for the wildcats everywhere. Daniels, all 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, missed his first eight shot attempts but muscled through a foul to score 3:42 on a run. The three-point game put the Wildcats 50-47 ahead. Reggie Miller made one of two free throws to increase the lead to four.
Texas went nearly four minutes without scoring before two Jones free throws, 56 seconds ahead – fouls that needed a break to clear the blood from the pitch.
Miller made sales at ACU’s next possession and Jones’ 3 seemed like a perfect March moment after the early career Texas junior missed time after being diagnosed with leukemia.
Instead, the Longhorns are sent home under Smart on their third exit on the first lap, which will only add to the heat of his standing in Austin.
“A lot of tears in the locker room right now,” said Smart. “A lot of people are very upset about the end of the game, the fact that we have to go home. Really disappointed, everyone is.”
Texas rolled into the NCAA tournament after winning the Big 12 tournament for the first time in school history. The Longhorns had won a total of five in a row and eight out of ten in a row after a slump in the midseason.
But the Longhorns were too careless and too impatient with the wildcats’ swarming defenses.
It was ugly, physical basketball, exactly the wildcat formula to create the surprise. They had the seventh best goal defense in the country this season, dropping just 60 points per game. They suppressed Nicholls State in the title game of the Southland Conference and held them to 45 points in a 34-point win.
Texas was 23 points below its season average. The 23 sales were a season high and the Longhorns made 27 fewer shots than the ACU.
“It just doesn’t feel real. I feel like I’m trying to wake up from a bad dream,” said Coleman.