INDIANAPOLIS — It was a day in desperate need of a buzzer-beater or a Cinderella story. College basketball wanted something — anything — that could overshadow the negativity surrounding the 2021 NCAA Tournament’s first game cancellation due to COVID-19.
Enter a kid who couldn’t dribble a basketball 10 years ago and a program that recently had a nine-win campaign in the Lone Star Conference in 2011.
Meet Joe Pleasant and No. 14 Abilene Christian.
The unlikeliest of heroes.
Pleasant, the son of ex-NFL defensive end Anthony Pleasant, stepped to the free throw line trailing No. 3 Texas 52-51 with 1.2 seconds left. He was shooting a paltry 59 percent from the line this season, but he approached the charity stripe, took a couple of deep breaths, stared at the rim and visualized the two shots dropping through the net.
“I knew he was going to make them,” Abilene Christian coach Joe Golding told Stadium after the upset. “All we talked about in the huddle was the defense after he made the two free throws.”
“It was no different than shooting in the gym by myself,” Pleasant added.
It was arguably the most shocking upset of the tournament thus far. Yes, even more surprising than No. 15 Oral Roberts knocking off No. 2 Ohio State. This Texas team is loaded with talent, boasting a trio of big men (Kai Jones, Greg Brown and Jericho Sims) who should all be NBA Draft picks as well as a bunch of talented veteran guards.
Golding’s team appeared overmatched at just about every position, whether it was with its 5-foot-7 guard Damien Daniels or its undersized 6-foot-5, 265-pound big man Airion Simmons. But they found a way to dominate a much bigger, far more athletic Longhorns team on the glass. The overall rebounding margin was 36-31 in favor of the Wildcats, but the key was on the offensive glass where ACU managed a ridiculous 18 boards while Texas got just five.
It certainly wasn’t Golding’s offense that put the Wildcats in position to win the game in the closing seconds. ACU shot just 29.9 percent from the field and was 3-of-18 (16.7 percent) from beyond the arc.
Yet there was Pleasant at the line, sinking a couple of clutch shots despite the fact that the analytics — and his own background — didn’t exactly point to him playing the hero.
You see, dad wasn’t exactly thinking his son would be in this situation based off his play as a child.
“He was terrible. Awful. Just awful,” Anthony Pleasant admitted. “Clueless.”
“I was pretty bad,” Joe Pleasant confirmed. “I couldn’t make a layup. It was brutal. People didn’t want to pick me for pickup.”
But it clicked in the seventh grade when he started to enjoy the process of working on his game and saw the improvement. The Kansas native was a state champion his last two seasons at Blue Valley Northwest High, and then chose Abilene Christian over Yale and Indiana State.
He played 13 minutes as a freshman in Abilene Christian’s loss to Kentucky two years ago in the NCAA Tournament, but this was a different player — and program — than the one mesmerized by the police escorts and plush hotels in 2019.
“We were just happy to be there,” Golding said about getting pummeled by 35 points to Tyler Herro & Co. “This time we came in believing we could win.”
Golding inherited a complete mess at his alma mater when he took over a decade ago. It wasn’t just the fact that it wasn’t even a Division 1 program; It was a terrible Division 2 program that couldn’t even stack up wins in the Lone Star Conference.
Fast forward to Golding’s first season in the D-1 ranks in 2013-14, which resulted in just two Southland Conference wins.
“We were the worst Division I team in the country,” Golding said.
But in the last three seasons, the Wildcats have been one of the best mid-major programs in the nation, going 71-22 overall and 42-11 in league play. Even then, when Andrew Jones buried a 3-pointer with 14.7 seconds remaining to give Texas the lead, it looked as though Golding and ACU were going to come up just short in their Cinderella bid.
ACU’s Reggie Miller drove the lane with seconds remaining and threw up a prayer that was blocked. However, the 6-foot-8 Pleasant grabbed the team’s 18th offensive board of the night and was immediately fouled. Then came the Cinderella magic that we all needed following the news that VCU’s game against Oregon was canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests within the Rams program.
A pleasant reminder that March always seems to bring surprises.
“It still hasn’t set in,” Golding told me in the wee hours of Sunday morning. “Tiny, little Abilene Christian just went toe to toe with Texas.”
You didn’t just go 12 rounds with the state’s flagship program. Thanks to a stingy defense and a couple of the unlikeliest shots, you became exactly what March Madness needed.