Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Abilene Christian upsets Texas as it thrives on family atmosphere: 'It's true love'

In the final game of a wild first round in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, 14th-seeded Abilene Christian knocked off third-seeded Texas in a wild finish Saturday night.

Junior Joe Pleasant, a 58.8-percent foul shooter, sank two free throws with 1.2 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 53-52 upset over the Longhorns, who came into the tournament after winning the Big 12 Tournament for the first time in school history. But it’s Abilene Christian, after its first NCAA tournament victory in just its second appearance, that advances to face 11th-seeded UCLA on Monday.

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“My coach, he said I was going to make the two free throws and we would get a stop on the [other] end,” Pleasant told the media after the win. “I just went down — you work on free throws all the time, it’s just no different, me shooting those, just me in the gym by myself. I just had to visualize them going in and then that was the result.”

ACU head coach Joe Golding reiterated that he had no doubt Pleasant’s pressure-packed free throws would go in.

“We talked about what we were going to do when he made them both,” Golding told the media. “At that point it was done. I knew he was making them. He works harder than anybody in our program. He lives in the gym. He’s there every day working on his game. … He’s just a great kid, hard-working kid. I knew they were getting in.”

Abilene Christian (24-4) became the fourth team seeded 13th or lower to reach the round of 32 this year, joining 15th-seeded Oral Roberts and No. 13 seeds Ohio and North Texas.

“We needed March Madness, man. We needed some type of normalcy to our country,” Golding said. “We needed people to fill out brackets. We needed people to cheer for the underdog.”

It’s been a rapid rise for the men’s basketball program at Abilene Christian. The Wildcats are in just their eighth year competing at the Division I level after moving up from Division II. Their first NCAA Tournament berth came in 2019, when they lost in the first round to No. 2 Kentucky.

Golding has been at the helm since 2011 and guided the program through its move to D-I. He was a four-year letterwinner at ACU from 1994-98, and has sought to build a family atmosphere since returning to his alma mater.

“It’s about family. It’s not fake. It’s not fake at all,” Golding said Saturday when asked about his team’s camaraderie. “We have been doing that all year and we have been doing that the last two or three years here. … We build real relationships with our players. We coach our players really, really hard, but we love them harder off the floor. And I think you see that. It’s true love.”

The team prayed together in the locker room prior to taking the court against Texas:

A private Christian university in Abilene, Texas, ACU has a total enrollment of nearly 5,300. The school’s mission “is to educate students for Christian leadership and service throughout the world.”

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