What a night: Larry Wise’s sensational play leads WTAMU Buffs to Elite Eight before electric crowd

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WTAMU celebrates after winning the NCAA Division II South Central Regional championship on Tuesday night against Colorado Mesa at the First United Bank Center. [Trevor Fleeman/ Press Pass Sports]
Those 2,568 fans in attendance Tuesday night at the First United Bank Center left the arena with a basketball memory of a lifetime.

That’s because West Texas A&M, and especially senior Larry Wise, played a second half for the ages running past skilled Colorado Mesa University earning a trip to Division II’s Elite Eight.

Fueled over and over by the sensational all-around skill of 6-foot-5 Wise, the No. 9-ranked Buffs scored a hefty 61 points in the second half erasing No. 6-ranked CMU’s eight-point halftime lead earning an 88-76 victory in the South Central Regional championship game on the West Texas A&M campus.

WT (29-4) advances to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight for fifth time in school history and the fourth since Tom Brown took over as head coach 10 years ago.

The Buffs last appearance in the Elite Eight was 2021 finishing as national runner-up.

This one Tuesday night had an added sweet taste as the last two seasons for the Buffs ended just shy of the Elite Eight in the regional semifinals (2022) and regional finals (2023).

WT will be the No. 4 seed at the Elite Eight and open against North Georgia at 8:30 p.m. March 26 in Evansville, Indiana.

“You’ve got to believe,” Brown said on the court minutes after the final buzzer as players hugged him over and over. “You just have to believe and that’s what these guys did. That second half? So many good things happened.”

So many good things can be said about this game:

– It felt like a Division I game with the electric atmosphere that included several football players running around with their shirts off encouraging the crowd to get louder.

– The play was physical with seemingly every shot contested. How many times do you see 12 blocked shots in a game?

– And then the sheer skill level on display from deep 3-pointers to creative ways getting to the rim and finishing with points, to intense help man-to-man defense.

– The game kept fans entertained with 10 lead changes and three ties.

WTAMU forward Larry Wise celebrates with the South Central Regional championship trophy on Tuesday night. [Trevor Fleeman/ Press Pass Sports]
But in the end, it was a Wise man leading the Buffs to the Promise Land after a shaky first-half that saw CMU in control leading 35-27.

Wise was playing his final home game of his stellar three-year WT career that has included Lone Star Conference player of the year honors and landing him fifth place on the WT all-time scoring list.

He was also playing with an injured ankle suffered in the Buffs gritty 60-54 regional semifinal win over Dallas Baptist Sunday night.

Wise finished with a game-high 29 points scoring in a variety of ways with spin moves in the paint, mid-range shots, following offensive rebounds and seemingly always scoring a bucket at a time WT needed it most. He also grabbed five rebounds, played 37 minutes and 42 seconds of the 40-minute game, added a team-high four assists, made two steals, blocked a shot and grabbed the praise of those who know a rare-air performance when they see it.

Wise scored 23 of his 29 in the second half.

CMU coach Mike DeGeorge, his team ending with a 29-5 record and within three points of the Buffs at 66-63 with 6:01 to play, heaped kind words all over Wise’s 12 of-21 shooting night.

“I don’t know how Wise was able to play like that in the second half with his ankle,” DeGeorge said. “I told him after the game that I don’t know if I have ever witnessed a performance like that the way he was hurting. It was incredible.”

WT assistant coach David Chavlovich, the all-time leading scorer in Buffs history, said it’s “the best second half of basketball I have ever since by a college player. I’m talking the passes, the rebounding, the scoring, just all of it. Just incredible”

When Wise was told of Chavlovich’s comment he just smiled and said, “I’ll take that from the all-time scorer.”

Wise said after the game his “personal goal this year is to win the national championship. … we just have to do whatever it takes to win.”

The Buffs had other players step up against CMU to secure the win. Because CMU had shooters galore giving WT fits.

The RMAC player of the year 6-foot-9 Trevor Baskin was all over the court going for 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots. Junior forward Ethan Menzies hurt WT inside especially early going 6-for-7 from the floor scoring 11 of his 14 points in the first half. Junor guard Christopher Speller attacked the basket time and again scoring 18 points, while junior guard Isaac Jessup hit a trio of threes for 11 points.

But WT was up to the task thanks to the incredible 61-point second half. That’s a 34-point improvement over the first half.

“We scored more points,” joked WT senior guard Zach Toussaint of what changed from the first half. “Wow, Larry was the big reason for that second half. What a special player and I’m so honored to play with him the past three years and be by his side this whole time. He’s even a better person. He’s my best friend.

“We got the ball moving and we played more loose than in the first half. I told my guys, like, play like we have been all year, don’t be so timid and let yourself go. We are down eight we don’t have anything to lose.”

The crowd cheers on Ryland Holt after hitting a big bucket against Colorado Mesa. [Trevor Fleeman/ Press Pass Sports]
Toussaint was definite thorn in CMU’s side finishing second in scoring for the Buffs with 17, making a trio of 3-pointers, one a deep step back three that was much needed with 5:41 remaining putting WT ahead 72-66.

Rounding out WT’s double-digit scorers was sophomore guard Ahamed Mohammed with 13. Mohammed’s moment in the sun was a pair of corner 3-pointers about 90 seconds apart midway through the second half. The latter of those threes putting the Buffs up 65-60 and igniting a 9-1 run.

Senior Ryland Holt, named to the all-region team, added nine points seven rebounds and deftly played the final 8:29 with four fouls and not fouling out.

LSC newcomer of the year and freshman Kieran Elliott found his groove for the Buffs in the paint grabbing a game-high nine rebounds and scoring nine points.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said WT coach Brown said of the game. “I give Mesa a lot of credit. They are so good and so talented. They were carving us up in the first half. … either team could have won this one. Tonight we had some special players as well in our four seniors Larry, Ryland, Zach and Cameron (Bell). We just persevered.”

Holt said it’s pretty simple when it comes to the Buffs on a basketball court.

“It’s pretty evident the way we play we are going to do whatever it takes to win,” Holt said. “One thru 14 that’s how we play. We had to score a lot of points to make up for that first half. That was a great team. But like Larry said earlier, we are going to do whatever it takes to win.”

And that win Tuesday night won’t easily be forgotten by those who witnessed an incredible night of basketball.

TOURNEY TALK

Brown said he will give the Buffs off Wednesday before getting back to practice on Thursday. … Toussaint has made 377 career 3-pointers leaving him 11 shy of tying the all-time record of 388 set by Chavlovich. Toussaint ranks second on the all-time WT scoring list with 1,800 points and is the all-time Buffs leader in games played at 155. … The South Central all-region team was led by WT with Wise earning the most valuable player and Holt being one of the five players selected.

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