Survive and advance.
West Texas A&M played the motto of tournament basketball to perfection Sunday evening advancing to the Division II Sweet 16.
Despite trailing 20-9 10 minutes into the game, WT was energized from a career performance from junior Ryland Holt and a strong man-to-man defense beating familiar foe Angelo State 69-59 in the semifinals of the South Central Regional Tournament before 1,578 fans in the First United Bank Center.
The win over Lone Star Conference opponent Angelo State for No. 1 seed WT (27-6) was its 13th in a row, pushing its home record to 15-0 this season.
Sunday marked the fourth time this year WT met ASU and the second in seven days with the Buffs eking out a 64-63 win in the LSC Tournament championship game.
WT ninth-year coach Tom Brown has built the Buffs into a national hoops power. WT is making there its fourth regional final appearance in five years.
Brown was pleased the way his team simply scrapped and clawed against a familiar ASU team.
“Well, it was a grudge match,” Brown said. “I thought Angelo came out and kind of punched us in the face. I was very concerned because Angelo’s defense is so very good. … they play well together, and I give credit to the coaching staff over there and Vinay (Patel). When you play somebody a fourth time it’s tough. They know us and we know them. … this was a great win for us. Anytime you make it to a Sweet 16 you have to be some really great teams and that’s what we did tonight (Sunday).”
Most important, the Buffs advanced to the South Central 7 p.m. final Tuesday against tourney surprise Black Hills State. Surprise only because Black Hills out of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference came in seeded No. 6 and Sunday knocked off No. 2 seed Fort Lewis 81-66 in the other semifinal.
WT and Black Hills will be playing for the first time this season. However, the two aren’t strangers. Black Hills defeated WT last year in the South Central regional semifinals 91-77 at Lubbock, eventually advancing to the Elite Eight.
Although West Texas led 34-33 at halftime the game was far from a back and forth with quick lead changes. with both teams putting together strong runs.
The first run arrived as ASU came out physical on defense and used the scoring of guard Reggie Quezada to hold a 20-9 lead with 9:31 to play in the opening half after a Quezada basket gave him seven of ASU’s opening 20 points.
“Knowing they have a good team and a deep team we were just trying to get off to a good start,” said Quezada, a junior guard from Harlam, N.Y. “We played them at home this year and I feel like we didn’t get off to a good start, so we just wanted to get off on the right foot. They are good but I thought we defended all night. They hit more shots than we did. We didn’t hit enough shots.”
Speaking of making buckets, that was WT’s Ryland Holt who put on a show to jump start the Buffs offense in the first half and all game until he fouled out with 2:03 remaining to a standing ovation from WT fans.
Holt is a junior forward and energized his team in a major way scoring 11 straight points for the Buffs from 20 to 31 on the scoreboard making sure WT was in this one producing an 11-2 run.
Holt had entered the game averaging five points per game and scoring a season-high at 12 points. During his impressive scoring spree Holt made a pair of 3-pointers, scored a free throw after an offensive rebound, and made a block.
Holt finished with a game-high 23 points making five 3-pointers.
“It’s pretty easy to do what I do when I have the guys around me I do,” said Holt, who added seven rebounds and three steals. “Coming in giving a spark and knocking down a couple of threes, that’s what I do.”
WT took the lead for good 46-44 with 11:24 remaining on a Holt old school three-point on a layup and a free throw after the foul.
Holt’s effort was a part of 12-0 for WT taking the Buffs from down 44-43 to ahead 52-44 after Holt canned a 3-pointer with 10:10 remaining.
Holt was joined in double figures scoring by WT’s electric senior point guard Julius Brown who played 38 of the 40-minute game, scoring 21 points, dishing out a game-high five assists and making all eight free throws he attempted.
Julius Brown expected a physical game out of the Rams after that LSC final seven days ago.
“We already knew it was going to be a grudge match,” Julius Brown said. “We were prepared it for it going in. They were going to be physical every possession and not let up and keep coming out at you until you give up. I’m proud of our guys. We stuck together and were able to pull it out.”
WT senior Damion Thornton added eight points, while senior Larry Wise and junior Zach Toussaint scored six apiece.
ASU ends its season at 26-7 under first-year coach Vinay Patel, a former assistant at WT.
The Rams were led in scoring by Quesada’s 19 points, followed by 11 points each from Fredelin De La Cruz and Devaughn Thomas.
“I was really proud and pleased we competed and fought the whole game,” said Patel. “I thought we fought until the last second. … I thought we guarded are tails off. … this is the start of special for us. To go toe-to-toe with WT each time we played them, they are at the top. I give Coach Brown and his bunch a lot of credit they have been the standard of the league as far as men’s basketball in the Lone Star.”