Introducing Cinderella: Abilene Christian earns first-ever NCAA bid

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Gardner-Webb won’t be the only school making its NCAA Division I tournament debut, as Abilene Christian punched its ticket with a 77-60 win over New Orleans in the Southland Conference tournament title game Saturday night. Senior forward Jaren Lewis led the way with 20 points, six rebounds and three steals, but it’s worth noting that Abilene Christian pulled away from UNO while its leading scorer was on the bench with four fouls.

Senior guard Jaylen Franklin added 16 points and six assists, and forwards Hayden Farquhar and Joe Pleasant scored 14 points apiece while also combining to grab 14 rebounds. Abilene Christian shot better than 56% from the field Saturday night, and defensively the Wildcats forced New Orleans into 20 turnovers.

Joe Golding’s program, which won no more than 13 games in any of its first four years back in the Southland (as a provisional Division I member), has won a total of 43 games over the last two seasons. And now the Wildcats will be a part of of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament for the first time.

CONFERENCE: Southland

COACH: Joe Golding

RECORD: 27-6 (14-4 Southland)

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 151
  • NET: 155

PROJECTED SEED: Abilene Christian may land on the 16 line despite the impressive overall record. For selection purposes the team is 23-6 (only games vs. Division I opponents are counted), and it’s ranked 342nd in strength of schedule. The Wildcats played a total of five games against teams in the first three quadrants, going 2-3.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Seniors Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin are two names to know, with the former being a second team All-Southland selection and the latter earning third team all-conference and all-defensive team honors. The 6-foot-6 Lewis entered Saturday averaging 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, with Franklin accounting for 10.0 points, 4.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds per. Another upperclassman who’s figured prominently in the team’s success is junior guard Payten Ricks, an honorable mention All-Southland pick who’s averaging 11.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: All five of Abilene Christian’s games against Quadrant 1/2/3 teams were played on the road, with wins over Pacific and Lamar and losses to Texas Tech, Pepperdine and Sam Houston State. The Wildcats’ worst defeat: a one-point loss at Stephen F. Austin back on January 23.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Abilene Christian is allowing just 63.2 points per game, a figure that ranks 17th nationally. The Wildcats are also ranked seventh in steals per game (8.6) and 17th in turnover margin (plus-4.5). Offensively this is a team that is shooting 38.7% from three on the season, and they’re shooting 47.1% from the field overall.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: You may not know a great deal about Abilene Christian unless you hail from Texas. But there are some recognizable individuals who spent some time on the campus before going on to make a name for themselves. Professional boxer and actor Randall “Tex” Cobb briefly attended the school before leaving to take up karate in his first foray into combat sports, and former Dallas Cowboy Clint Longley played quarterback at ACU.

Also, Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard earned his master’s degree in education from Abilene Christian.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.