ABILENE, Tex. — The standings in the Southland Conference through the first half of league play are a log jam, as eight teams came into Wednesday night with a record above .500 against conference opponents.
On Wednesday night, two teams with 5-4 records looked to separate themselves from the pack a bit. The Abilene Christian Wildcats welcomed the Lamar Cardinals to town in the only meeting of the season between the two programs. Last season, they only met once, and the Wildcats picked up a home win thanks to a buzzer-beating three pointer from Payten Ricks from half court.
While there weren’t any late-game heroics this time around, the end result was still the same. Abilene Christian and Lamar went back and forth for much of the first half before the home side took a four point lead into the break.
The Wildcats led for most of the second frame, and picked up their sixth conference win of the season with a 74-69 victory over the Cardinals.
Sophomore forward Jalone Friday put forth a strong effort on both ends of the floor to lead the Wildcats to victory. He recorded a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Tevin Foster finished with 12 points and nine assists, while Jaren Lewis added 12 points and eight rebounds.
Ricks, last year’s hero, finished with just three points.
Despite the loss, Josh Nzeakor continued his strong play for the Cardinals. He finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, leading Lamar in both categories on the night. Nick Garth posted 10 points off the bench in 24 minutes, while Zjori Bosha chipped in with 15 points and six rebounds.
James Harrison rounded out a quartet of Cardinals in double figures with 12 points and five rebounds.
The Cardinals came out of the gate strong on offense, taking a seven point lead just over five minutes into the game. A dunk from Nzeakor at the 14:41 mark gave Lamar a 15-8 lead. However, a scoring drought for the visitors allowed the Wildcats to halt the momentum for the Cardinals and get back into things before the halfway point of the opening frame.
Lewis got a layup to fall with just over 12 minutes in the frame, and the game was all tied up at 15 apiece. From there, the teams would go back and forth down to the break before Abilene Christian would take a four-point lead into the locker room. A three ball from Hayden Farquhar and a jumper from Jaylen Franklin sent the Wildcats into the break with a big boost of momentum, and a 36-32 lead.
Early in the second half, Nzeakor hit a jumper to tie the game at 37-all, and it looked as though fans were in for another nail biter inside Moody Coliseum. After Nzeakor’s bucket, the Cardinals went cold on offense once more, thus allowing the Wildcats to stretch their lead to nine points.
Abilene Christian would never trail in the second half. With eight seconds to play, Nzeakor got a layup to drop plus the foul, and he hit the ensuing free throw to bring Lamar to within a single point, at 70-69. In the closing seconds, both Foster and Lewis hit a pair of free throws to keep the Wildcats on top.
Bosha missed a three pointer in the closing seconds for the Cardinals, and Abilene Christian took the 74-69 victory.
The loss was the second in three games for Lamar (13-10, 5-5), who dropped to eighth in the Southland Conference as a result. The Cardinals will look to get back on track on Saturday night when they play host to the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.
With the win, Abilene Christian (14-9, 6-4) are now in a tie for sixth in the conference, sitting just 2.5 games back of top spot. The Wildcats, who have alternated wins and losses over their past five games, will look to make it two in a row on Saturday night when they visit the fourth place Sam Houston State Bearkats.
– T. Bennett