Photo courtesy of Abilene Christian athletics
Just nine seasons ago, the Abilene Christian Wildcats were a 12-14 team competing in NCAA Division II. The Wildcats hadn’t appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1999.
Now, they’re on top of the Lone State State. Abilene Christian did the unthinkable and upset flagship school Texas 53-52 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Saturday evening.
“It’s an incredible feeling for this whole team,” said junior forward Joe Pleasant. “We were really excited about this game, excited that we got an opportunity to play a good program, a good team like Texas, and it feels even better to get a win like this.”
10th-year head coach Joe Golding was just as enthusiastic.
“We just beat the University of Texas,” Golding boasted. “Little old Abilene Christian out in West Texas built a program that went toe-to-toe with the University of Texas and it’s an incredible story. It’s what March is about.”
The 14th-seeded Wildcats played right there with the third-seeded Longhorns all evening long. It was Pleasant’s two late free throws with 1.2 seconds remaining that put Abilene Christian on top for good.
“My coach, he said I was going to make the two free throws and we would get a stop on the end,” Pleasant shared. “I just went down; you work on free throws all the time. It’s just no different, me shooting those, just me in the gym by myself. I just had to visualize them going in and then that was the result.”
Started From The Bottom, Now They’re Here
This season marked the second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Wildcats. The last time however, was a completely different story. Abilene Christian was smacked down by another group of Wildcats — Kentucky — 79-44.
“It’s completely different than the Kentucky game two years ago,” Golding added. “We weren’t in awe of the charter plane, we weren’t in awe of the police motorcade. We didn’t celebrate like crazy when our name came up against Texas. It’s been all work this week.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Abilene Christian was a sub-.500 team in Division II’s Lone Star Conference. Now, it has represented the Southland Conference in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. The Wildcats, along with Oral Roberts out of the Summit League, have captured the nation’s hearts this 2021 postseason.
“It’s a heck of a story,” Golding confessed. “Somebody’s going to write about it one day. We were the worst Division I team in the country and now we just beat the University of Texas.”
“It’s a huge honor. For to be a part of this program and just to see the direction this program is headed,” he said. “I’m very happy with the progress this program has been making and we just want to continue to work and try to continue to build off of this.”
A Smooth Stroke
The Overland Park, Kan. native’s name will forever be remembered in Abilene, Tex. with his heroic game-winning free throws. Even as a 58% free throw shooter, his head coach knew that would be the case before he stepped to the charity stripe.
“We talked about what we were going to do when he made them both,” Golding said about what he told Pleasant before he headed to the line. “At that point, it was done. I knew he was making them. He works harder than anybody in our program. He lives in the gym.
“He’s just a great kid, hard working kid,” Golding continued. “I knew they were getting in. All we talked about was make Texas throw the ball in front of us and if they threw the lob go get it. Good things happen to good people. It was part of the story. The story was written, Joe was going to make those free throws, I had no doubt.”
The Madness Ensues
Abilene Christian is not supposed to be here. But the Wildcats are, and that’s the beauty of March.
It’s an incredible story, and it’s not finished yet.
They’ll try to continue their Cinderella story by advancing to the Sweet 16 when they take the floor on Monday night against the 11th-seeded UCLA Bruins. The game will tip at 5:15 p.m. ET and will be televised on TBS.