MESA, Ariz---Gio Nelson's two free-throws with 17 seconds left put the Arizona Western Matadors (10-2 overall, 4-0 ACCAC) up 76-75 en route to remaining the lone unbeaten in the conference with a road win over the Mesa Thunderbirds (6-3 overall, 4-1 ACCAC) Saturday afternoon.
In a battle of the two remaining unbeaten teams in the ACCAC, the decision came down to who could get the final stop in a game that started out with a much faster pace.
The first five minutes of the game went back and forth, changing leads seven times and being tied four, until Mesa pulled away behind Rajhan Billingsley and BJ Burries.
Billingsley struck for 16 of his career high 28 while hitting on three of four threes in the first half. Burries scored all ten of his points in the first twenty minutes. The T-Birds shot 55% from the field in the first half and struck for 47 points against the stingy Matador defense.
The Matadors hung around in the first half by shooting 60%, primarily by dominating the paint, outscoring the T-Birds 26-6 inside.
The second half saw the Matadors crawl their way back in after falling behind by as many as ten. But Mesa maintained the lead for nineteen and half minutes in the second half.
While the Matadors hit four three's in the second half, it was the timeliness including two by Lawrence Long and one by Cash Williams that helped the Matadors pull within a point.
With Mesa holding a 74-75 lead, the Mats had the ball with 30 seconds left, Daniel Kiely's baseline drive found Nelson in the paint, drawing the foul before hitting the crucial free-throws. Mesa's final attempt was a contested runner in traffic, that ricocheted high off of the rim as the horn sounded.
It's the Matadors ninth consecutive victory and leaves them as the only unbeaten team during conference play in the ACCAC. It also stands out as another game in which the Matador defense tightened at a crucial juncture.
The defense saw Mesa hit on seven of their thirteen three's in the first half before surrendering just three total attempts in the second half. Mesa added just one made three in the final twenty minutes.
Nelson's 15 points and 4 rebounds supported solid nights from Kiely, who led the Matadors with 20 points, and Williams who finished with 18. Long struck for 9 of his very important 12 in the second half.
Arizona Western will play one more road game before the end of the semester, the rescheduled contest against Pima, Monday night at 7:30pm in Tucson. The game will be livestreamed via the Matador Athletics Facebook page.