Saturday's first round NCAA Tournament action may have started a bit slow in terms of providing iconic upsets, but it sure ended with a bang, as No. 14 seed Abilene Christian upset No. 3 seed Texas 53-52. It was the first NCAA Tournament victory for the Wildcats, who just became eligible for the Big Dance in 2018 while completing the transition to Division I.
Abilene Christian's Joe Pleasant hit two free throws with 1.2 seconds remaining to seal the victory for the Wildcats after he was fouled by Matt Coleman III on a put-back attempt.
The made free throws by Pleasant, who is just a 58.8% free-throw shooter, cemented the outcome. But the impetus for the upset was a stifling defensive effort from Abilene Christian, which forced 23 Texas turnovers and held the Longhorns to just 24 points in the second half. Until the Texas loss, Big 12 teams were a perfect 6-0 in the first round of this NCAA Tournament.
BELIEVE THE UNBELIEVABLE!— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 21, 2021
ABILENE CHRISTIAN TAKES DOWN THE LONGHORNS.@ACU_MBB pic.twitter.com/fRYqWjdJnp
It was the lowest scoring output of the season for Texas, which tied a season-high with 91 against Oklahoma State while winning the Big 12 Tournament title less than a week ago. But the Longhorns somehow managed to attempt just 40 shots from the floor against Abilene Christian, due in part to their crippling turnover issues.
Abilene Christian's effort shouldn't be regarded as a total shock, though. The Wildcats also reached the Big Dance in 2019 and were tested early this season against NCAA Tournament teams when they played close games against Texas Tech and Arkansas. Once Southland Conference play arrived, Abilene Christian got on a roll.
Entering Saturday night, the Wildcats had won 12 of their last 13 games, which included a couple of blowout wins in the Southland Conference Tournament.
Abilene Christian is the first No. 14 seed to beat a No. 3 seed since Stephen F. Austin in 2016. No. 14 seeds are now 22-122 all-time against No. 3 seeds.
Abilene Christian's journey
For Abilene Christian coach Joe Golding, the victory was especially significant. He was a point guard for the Wildcats in the 1990s when they were a Division II program and returned as an assistant from 2005 to 2008. After a stint on staff at Little Rock, he came back as head coach in 2011 and helped guide the program during its transition to Division I.
The Wildcats posted an overall losing record during their first four seasons in Division I and a losing record in Southland Conference play for their first five seasons. But the program stuck with Golding, and it paid off. The Wildcats began turning a corner in the 2018-19 season with a 27-7 record that led to the program's first NCAA Tournament berth. As a No. 15 seed, the Wildcats got blown out in a first-round loss to Kentucky.
However, that trip gave some key players on the 2020-21 roster valuable experience on the big stage. Three of Saturday night's starters -- Pleasant, Damien Daniels and Kolton Kohl -- were contributors off the bench for that squad.
The heart & soul of @ACU_MBB. 🔥😂#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/Qy7BAtECsM— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2021
Texas' NCAA Tournament woes
The chances of Texas being the Big 12 team to end the league's undefeated start to NCAA Tournament play seemed remote. Texas had notched five straight wins entering the night and looked strong while winning the Big 12 Tournament.
But NCAA Tournament struggles are nothing new for the Longhorns. This is Shaka Smart's sixth season as coach, and the program has yet to win a game in the Big Dance during his tenure. The program's last NCAA Tournament victory came in 2014 under Rick Barnes, who has since won three postseason games as the coach at Tennessee.
Since becoming eligible for the NCAA Tournament in 2018, the Wildcats have made as many appearances in the Big Dance as Texas, and now they have one more win in the event than the Longhorns do in that span.
For the sake of context: Abilene Christian's undergraduate enrollment is roughly 3,500, compared to Texas' nearly 41,000.
Veteran guard play is often regarded as a hallmark of successful NCAA Tournament teams, and Texas seemed poised for success in the Big Dance because of its status in that category. With a trio of upperclassmen in Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman III and Courtney Ramey running the operation for Texas, there was no excuse for the crippling turnover woes.
Abilene Christian shot just 29.9% from the field but got 23 of its 53 points off Texas turnovers. It can't all be blamed on Texas' guards, however. Abilene Christian also outscored Texas 12-0 in second-chance points, which is a crushing indictment on the Longhorns' post players.
Landing five-star local prospect Greg Brown was supposed to change the fortunes of this program. But Brown, who has contributed all season and is regarded as a likely first-round NBA Draft pick, played just six minutes on Saturday. Smart will have to answer for how this team was not able to better incorporate a player of Brown's talent into the rotation during what could have been a breakthrough season for the Longhorns.