Jacksonville, Fla. — The Abilene Christian men's basketball team won the opening tipoff on Thursday night, but that was about as good as it would get in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Offense was hard to come by for the purple-clad Wildcats who got on the board with Hayden Farquhar's 3-pointer three minutes, 36 seconds into the game after Kentucky scored the first eight points. ACU trailed 39-13 at halftime before having its season end with a 79-44 loss.
NCAA Tournament: ACU living the dream by playing Kentucky
NCAA Tournament: ACU coach puts on a show, hopes team can do the same
And while it ended, this is a season and team that will be celebrated at ACU for years to come.
"I think it was the best season in ACU history," ACU coach Joe Golding said. "I don't think it was one of the best, I think it was the best season in school history. And we're going to celebrate those three seniors and this team like it was the best because they deserve it."
ACU missed its first four shots before Farquhar got his trey to fall. But it would be five minutes before ACU scored again, at that point Kentucky built an 18-5 lead and took away any hope.
"In this tournament, (starting well is) really important," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "What happens when teams are desperate, they'll do stuff they don't usually do, and if you let a team hang around, something stupid, crazy, like what just happened, can happen ... We got out of the gate really guarding and blocking shots and did a pretty good job and shot a high percentage."
That left ACU looking for answers, and it took until the second half to find them. ACU was just 5 of 26 shooting over the first 20 minutes of the game and had eight turnovers — leading to 10 Kentucky points — at halftime.
"We just couldn't make shots, shot 19 percent in the first half," senior guard Jaylen Franklin said. "And then the second half we pretty much shot 45 (percent) — 45? Yeah, I guess. And just the first half, turning the ball over first half really hurt us."
Senior forward Jaren Lewis was one constant for ACU, finishing with a team-high 17 points and pulling down an ACU-best five rebounds. The result is a hard pill to swallow, but playing on the biggest stage in college basketball against a premier program is something to be proud of.
"I mean, it was a great experience being out there for March Madness and everything," Lewis said. "It was great knowing it was the first time in our school's history, but at the end of the day, it stings losing like that. And being me, Jaylen and Hayden's last game, it hurts, but it was a great experience, probably something we'll never forget."
And as much as Golding stole the show from a torn suit at the end of the Southland Conference championship game through telling his team, "I love you. And thanks" before the game, he wanted to make sure the real story was his team.
ACU was led by its three seniors all year long and battled through two players being removed from the team late in the year. They battled through it all to win the Southland tournament and reach its first-ever NCAA Tournament.
"I want to make sure moving forward that this team is celebrated," Golding said. "It's not my hole in my pants, it's our team, and it's our university because they deserve it, man. These guys have been incredible, man. I'm fortunate to coach them. They took me on a hell of a ride, one that I'll never forget the rest of my life."
Payten Ricks scored all nine of his points in the second half while Franklin scored seven of his nine in the second half. ACU was more itself over the final 20 minutes of the game.
"It's tough adjusting to all the length at the rim, and we knew what we had to do," Lewis said. "It was just a tough challenge for us getting on the glass. But yeah, the turnovers killed us, and then we just couldn't see anything fall in the first half, so it was tough."
It was the final game at ACU for seniors Franklin, Lewis and Farquhar. And when the time comes to shift focus to the 2019-20 season, ACU will do so with an experienced group coming back, but a question on how to round out the roster.
With two rising seniors no longer with the program, Golding doesn't need to just find bodies. He needs to find experienced bodies who can have an instant impact.
"I mean, time will tell with that, but we have a bunch of young kids back," Golding said. "We're also losing three really good seniors, but we've got some good young kids back ... We've built this on high school kids and a culture and really developing, evaluating talent and trying to develop, and so we might have to get creative in recruiting here through grad transfers, JuCo or something, but we're not going to change who we are, and I think our program is going to move forward."
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