The Purple Reigns Supreme on Opening Night of WAC Play

Purple
Despite dealing with leg cramps in the second half, Airion Simmons led ACU to a big road win at Utah Valley to open WAC play Thursday. Courtesy Cassie Kelley/ACU Athletics.
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There are four schools in the WAC whose colors are purple and white. They may add in a little black or gray at times. But, purple is the primary color. And on Thursday night, as WAC play began, the purple and white was supreme. Also, let’s be clear. It wasn’t just on the men’s side either. The schools who don the purple and white combined to go 6-1 between the men and the women.

Let’s take a look back at a fun opening night of conference play where the purple reigned the day.

Sam Houston 75, Lamar 64

So, Sam Houston covered the spread. And the two teams hit the over in the WAC opener. But, the story in this game is fact that Lamar nearly went into Huntsville and knocked off the Bearkats. What is significant about that? Well, Lamar was playing with just eight players. The Cardinals brought seven scholarship players and a walk-on to their WAC opener. And with 4:07 left to play, Lamar trailed by a point.

Perhaps it was the legs that gave out or just that Sam Houston decided to stop messing around. But the Bearkats went on a 7-0 run from that point to take control and hold off the Cardinals. Savion Flagg had game-high 22 points. Demarkus Lampley and Donte Powers were both in double figures for the Bearkats with 20 and 11 points, respectively.

Lincoln Smith led four Cardinals in double figures with 20 points. C.J. Roberts, Brock McClure and Corey Nickerson were also in double figures with 12, 10, and 10 points, respectively. Both team shot over 50 percent from the field. Lamar hit 11 3-pointers in the contest and shot 44 percent from deep. Sam Houston got its third Division I win of the season. Lamar has yet to beat a Division I opponent. But, on the flip side, Lamar has yet to be fully healthy for any contest. The Cardinals were without Kasen Harrison, Davion Buster and Jordyn Adams on Thursday night. That is over half of the scoring for the Cardinals.

Sam Houston will host UTRGV on Monday. Lamar travels to Nacogdoches to take on SFA on Saturday.

Abilene Christian 80, Utah Valley 76

Prior to Thursday night, all signs pointed to this contest in Orem being the most intriguing matchup of the night. And the battle between the purple and green lived up to the hype. You had a halftime buzzer beater by Utah Valley guard Blaze Nield. And then Nield hit another buzzer beater to beat the shot clock 15:06 to play. It was one of a career-high seven 3-pointers on the night for Nield. But, Abilene Christian big man Airion Simmons also hit big shot after big shot. And all of that while dealing with cramps for most of the second half. Head coach Brette Tanner didn’t even want him to put him back in during the second half. But, Simmons insisted and the result worked out for the purple and white.

Simmons finished with a team-high 21 points and Abilene Christian knocked off Utah Valley in the WAC opener for both teams. If you weren’t watching in the first half, you missed quite the blur. Abilene Christian went on a 10-0 run to take 31-19 lead with 5:24 to play. Utah Valley responded with a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to two with 2:33 to play. ACU then calmly responded with a 7-0 run to push it back to nine with 1:05 to play. And then Blaze Nield finished off the first half with a 6-0 run of his own including a half-court buzzer beater to end the half.

Just a wild, wild game. It is what you expect out of two of the top teams in the WAC. ACU has now won 10 straight games. It is also the first road win since Nov. 16 for the Wildcats.

Nield had a career-high 27 points as well as 11 assists and seven rebounds in the contest. Cameron Steele was also in double figures for the Wildcats with 17 points to go along with nine rebounds.

WAC Player of the Year candidate Fardaws Aimaq finished with another double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

ACU travels down I-15 to take on Dixie State on Saturday. Utah Valley hosts Tarleton at 2 p.m. MT on New Year’s Day.

Here is what ACU head coach Brette Tanner had to say after the win.

GCU 80, Chicago State 63

It took nearly the entire first half for the purple to pull away at GCU Arena on Thursday night, but it happened. GCU used a 14-3 run late in the first half to push its lead to nine over the Cougars. And the Lopes never looked back. Yes, the Cougars got within eight at halftime. But the power of purple was just a little too much for the depleted Cougars. Chicago State dressed nine players but the majority of them were in foul trouble the entire night. In fact, leading scorers Brandon Betson and Jahsean Corbett each had three fouls with over four minutes left in the first half.

Jovan Blacksher Jr., Gabe McGlothan and the rest of the Lopes took full advantage. Blacksher Jr. had 24 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win. McGlothan was a beast in the paint, finishing with 17 points and six rebounds. Dima Zdor also had a nice night for GCU with 10 points and six rebounds.

Chicago State battled. It’s what you like to see out of the Cougars. In fact, at the under four media timeout of the first half, Chicago State led 27-25 before the wheels kind of fell off. But, Chicago State, when and if they get fully healthy, is going to cause some problems and play spoiler. Ali Abdou Dibba had a team-high 21 points and seven rebounds. Coreyoun Rushin had 16 points and nine rebounds. And the Cougars held their own despite being so depleted.

However, GCU was also playing without starting guard Holland Woods. But, Chance McMillian stepped up in his place. With McMillian on the floor, GCU outscored Chicago State 80-46. When McMillian was on the bench, Chicago State outscored the Lopes 17-0.

Next up for Chicago State is a trip to Las Cruces to take on New Mexico State on Saturday. GCU has New Year’s Day off and will travel to UTRGV on Jan. 6.

Purple
GCU guard Chance McMillian dives on the floor to battle Chicago State’s Brandon Betson for a loose ball on Thursday night. Courtesy GCU Athletics.

Tarleton 83, Dixie State 69

Another purple and white squad picked up a win in its WAC opener. And Dixie State got a taste of that purple reign on Thursday night at the Burns Arena. Without five players including two starters, Tarleton made an absolute statement on Thursday night. Freddy Hicks had a career-high 27 points and Tarleton led from wire-to-wire in an 83-69 win over the Trailblazers. Four Texans played all 40 minutes. And all four of those players were in double figures.

Hicks led the team. Javontae Hopkins had 18, Noah McDavid had 17 and Montre Gipson finished with 13. Head coach Billy Gillispie played just six players in the contest, but it didn’t matter. The Texans shot 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point land. Hicks was an efficient 9-18 from the field and hit three 3-pointers.

If playing without two of its leading scorers wasn’t enough, Tarleton was also without two coaches due to COVID-19 protocols. Yes, the purple reign was on full effect Thursday night. And even when Dixie State cut the deficit to two with 7:13 to play, Tarleton responded. Dancell Leter’s layup with 7:13 to play made it a 59-57 game. Tarleton head coach Billy Gillispie made perhaps the move of the night by calling a full timeout to stop the momentum. And it worked. The Texans caught their breath, went on a 13-4 run over the next three minutes and left St. George with a win in their WAC opener.

Tarleton now heads up snowy I-15 to take on Utah Valley on New Year’s Day. Dixie State hosts Abilene Christian to open the New Year on Saturday at Burns Arena.

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