William R. Johnson Coliseum has seen countless great men in Stephen F. Austin men's basketball uniforms ply their basketball craft within its walls and Wednesday night three more players bid a fond farewell to the venerable building with yet another Lumberjack victory.
Ivan Canete, Ty Charles and Leon Gilmore III celebrated their final appearance inside the building that houses the nation's best winning percentage since 2012-13 by helping the 'Jacks blast visiting Abilene Christian 76-56 and move one win away from a fifth 25-win season in the last six years as well as the number-three seed in the upcoming Southland Conference Tournament.
Never did the 'Jacks trail in the Southland Conference tilt and Canete finished with a game-high 15 points to go along with six assists and five steals - two more game highs. Gilmore III added 10 points of his own while Charles, the only four-year senior on the 'Jacks' roster, netted seven points to become just the 30th player in program history to move past 1,000 points in his career.
"What more could you ask for on senior night?" asked SFA head coach Kyle Keller surrounded by his three-man senior class following the game. "It was a convincing win, our seniors owned the locker room, we played through them and one of them [Ty Charles] sets the tone by chasing down a loose ball. These guys are really selfless - that's who they are in nature. They have put winning first through their entire careers and it shows."
Getting wide-open looks wasn't a difficult task to accomplish for the 'Jacks who shot 50-percent (27-of-54) for the game while committing just 12 turnovers. SFA's three seniors - and the other eight players who logged minutes in the wire-to-wire win - also helped the 'Jacks set a new single-season record in steals. The team's 11 steals upped its season total to 319, breaking the old single-season record of 311 set by the 2015-16 squad. The team's steals came at the expense of an ACU squad which shot 44-percent from the field but committed 23 turnovers.
Putting the Wildcats in their rearview mirror almost immediately, the 'Jacks opened the game on a lopsided 21-9 run through the first 12:31 and never saw their lead dip under 10 points for the rest of the night.
While the 'Jacks thoroughly enjoyed the environment given to them by their fans in attendance, the Wildcats almost certainly did not. Putting their west Texas adversaries in a defensive chokehold, the 'Jacks held Abilene Christian scoreless for a stretch of 6:31 in the opening frame. By the end of that Wildcat scoreless stretch, the hosts had succeeded in turning their 11-9 edge into a much more comfortable 21-9 advantage with 7:29 to go in the opening frame.
Shannon Bogues and TJ Holyfield pumped in four points apiece for SFA through that run and in all seven 'Jacks finished the opening frame with four or more points to turn the tilt into a rout early. Stifling the Wildcats' offense, SFA allowed ACU to connect on just 37.5-percent (9-of-24) of their shots in the first 20 minutes of action and the visitors' difficulty to hit field goals was compounded by the 'Jacks' defense which was eager to give its home fan base one final glimpse of just how deadly it can be.
SFA forced 13 turnovers in the first stanza and did not let the Wildcats go to the free throw line in that span either. Thriving in the painted area against ACU's porous interior defense, SFA received 54.5-percent (24 of 44) of its first-half point total with points in the paint. That didn't mean the 'Jacks wouldn't venture out beyond the three point line, though, as Canete drilled a pair of triples before Charles vaulted past the 1,000 career-point mark by draining a 25-footer with one second left in the half to account for the hosts 44-21 advantage.
The 'Jacks' lead hit 30 - its largest of the night - after Kevon Harris (eight points, game-high eight rebounds) sparked a 7-0 run by the hosts to start the second half with a three-pointer. Gilmore III finished off the surge with a fast-break dunk and a nifty finger-roll finish and from there the 'Jacks cruised home.
B.J. Maxwell posted 13 points, earning the distinction of being the only Abilene Christian player with 10 or more markers in the Wildcats' fourth-straight setback. The Wildcats did finish the game with a 33-29 edge in the rebounding department over SFA, but 23 turnovers turned into 24 Lumberjack points.
Saturday night, the 'Jacks face their final - and perhaps stiffest Southland Conference road test - of the regular season. SFA heads south to Huntsville, Texas, home of age-old Piney Woods rival Sam Houston State, for a 7:00 p.m. matchup with the Bearkats who have not dropped a Southland game inside Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum this season. In order to secure the number-three seed for the Southland Conference Tournament, the 'Jacks must defeat the Bearkats.