ALLEN It felt just as sweet the second time around.
That ladder took the Falcons up just as high as before. Every snip of the scissors still sounded like string music.
A week after cutting down the nets back in Odessa to celebrate a regular-season conference championship, the UTPB men’s basketball team added to its collection Sunday, cutting down the nets in the Allen Event Center after dropping rival Angelo State 93-85 in the Lone Star Conference tournament finals.
With the win, the Falcons savored their second championship, after winning three games in four days to take the league’s tournament title.
"This is the culmination of a great year," UTPB head coach Andy Newman said, wearing nylon around his neck for the second straight weekend.
But it isn’t the end. No. 23 UTPB is set to travel to Golden, Colo., next weekend to play in the South Central regionals as part of the NCAA Division II’s national championship tournament. The Falcons learned their NCAA tournament fate just a few hours after their win over Angelo State on Sunday.
Still, Sunday’s victory was one to savor in the meantime.
Senior Johnnie Lacy led UTPB with 24 points as one of six Falcons scoring in double figures in the win. James McPherson added 17 while Daeshon Francis scored 16. Andres Villa tallied 12 as Josh Morris and Sammy Allen each recorded 10 each.
UTPB led by 15 at the halftime break, its offense exploding to 51 first-half points by connecting on 58.1 percent of its attempts from the field.
The Falcons expected a push back from their rival Rams in the second half, and they got just that on several occasions.
UTPB’s lead ballooned to as large as 18 points soon after the break, but no matter what, Angelo State didn’t go away. The Rams used a 12-0 run to cut that margin down to six points about four minutes into the second half, and later in the period they used a 6-0 run to make it a five-point game with about eight minutes to go, all before putting together a 9-3 run in the late stages to make it a five-point game again going into the final minute of the game.
But Angelo State was forced to make those runs at different times because each time the Rams did just that a strung a few baskets together, UTPB had an answer.
Each time the Rams cut it close, the Falcons pulled away again to erase those efforts.
In the final minute, the Falcons (26-5) managed to avoid any turnovers while hitting six of seven attempts from the foul line to seal the win and capture the Lone Star tournament championship.
"I love it," Lacy said, asked if cutting down nets after winning championships would ever get old.
After edging out Angelo State in a pair of one-possession games during the regular season this year, the Rams and Falcons met for the third time Sunday after both teams navigated their way through the tournament quarterfinals and semifinals earlier in the weekend.
Angelo State (17-13) backpedaled into the postseason, losing four of its last five games down the stretch of the regular season to fall into taking the No. 7 seed into the conference tournament.
But the Rams caught fire at the tournament and beat second-seeded Tarleton State last Thursday before beating sixth-seeded Texas A&M-Kingsville Saturday to get its third crack at top-seeded UTPB on Sunday.
"Angelo, obviously, is maybe the hottest team in the Lone Star Conference right there," Newman said. "They are playing so good. They’re so talented, so tough, and they’re so well-coached.
"This win tonight was, I think, the best one we had all week. To beat a team that formidable was really special."
UTPB led throughout the second half, but even when the Falcons enjoyed a double-digit lead, the Rams didn’t seem far out of it.
After all, Angelo State put together a 12-0 run in just more than two minutes early in the second half. Knowing what the Rams were capable of, the Falcons stayed on edge throughout the tournament final.
"It felt like it was closer than what it was," Morris said. "There was a lot of urgency. We really wanted this one. We really, really wanted it. So we treated every possession like it was a one-possession game."
Lacy scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half alone. In the post-game press conference, the senior alluded to the last time the Falcons sealed a championship, on Senior Day against Texas A&M-Commerce in the Falcons’ regular-season finale at home. Lacy scored 22 points in that one, and he said that Sunday his teammates and coaches encouraged him to come out of the gate firing the same way he did then.
"I just took that mentality and I came out shooting the ball," Lacy said. "Surprisingly, it was going in. They kept telling me to shoot the ball, so I was letting it rip tonight."
Newman, sitting to his left, chimed in.
"I wasn’t surprised," he said.
Lacy knocked down five of seven from 3-point range while his teammate in the backcourt, McPherson, knocked down four of six from distance.
Francis finished with 16, and was ultimately named the tournament’s MVP after the game. Lacy, McPherson and Sammy Allen, who pulled down seven rebounds in the win over Angelo State after hauling in double-digit boards in the first two rounds, were all named to the all-tournament team.
Villa, a freshman, finished with 12, stepping in when Morris and fellow forward Zeldric King and the rebounding-specialist Allen fell into foul trouble. Morris and King fouled out down the stretch, while Allen picked up his fourth midway through the second half.
Villa finished an efficient 4 of 5 from the field, and he knocked down four of his five foul shots, too.
"We’ve seen this," Newman said. "This is what I recruited, and we see this in practice every day. He is going to be a force in this league for a long time. He’s a really good player, really talented, and today was really just the first time he showed that to you.
"Now, for it to happen in a championship game like this is huge. To watch a freshman step up like that is enormous and it’s a testament to his toughness and his readiness to be there."
That performance came as no surprise to Morris on the floor, either.
"It’s nothing new to us," Morris said. "We expect that from him. He’s that good. Coming in as a freshman it may sound crazy, but he’s that good, where he can, even in practice, can compete with me and (King) and make us work for real. He’s that good.
"He can do everything. A lot of people don’t know that, but he’s just the secret weapon," he smiled.
King fouled out with just four points, but after the win, he was excited to have picked up a team win — and excited to see his young teammate step up, especially now, when the Falcons need him most.
"We cut them nets down again, baby," King said. "That’s what matters. We’re trying to get to the national championship, so we need every piece.
"We need everybody, from the tip of the line to the end of the line. We need everybody."
UTPB will face Lone Star rival Texas A&M-Kingsville in the first round of the NCAA tournament at that South Central regional hosted by Colorado School of Mines.
Mines edged out UTPB to earn the right to host the regional, finishing the regular season atop the regional rankings just ahead of second-ranked UTPB, then going 3-0 this past weekend to win the RMAC tournament.
UTPB was ranked No. 23 in the latest NABC national poll released Feb. 28. Mines was ranked No. 14, and is now sitting 27-4.
The tournament bracket was released Sunday night as part of the tournament selection show on NCAA.com.
UTPB will be one of eight teams going to the South Central regional, which is one of eight regions in the nation meeting for early-round action between teams in the 64-team field.
Games are set to be played there starting next weekend. After regionals, the DII Elite Eight will meet in Sioux Falls, S.D. to determine the national champion between March 22-25.