STEPHENVILLE – A significant era of NCAA Division II men’s basketball ended on Thursday night inside Wisdom Gym.
When the buzzer sounded following a 70-63 win for Tarleton over Midwestern State, it marked the 51st and final time these rivals would meet as members of Division II as the Texans are set to move to NCAA Division I and the Western Athletic Conference next season.
This rivalry was at the center of the Lone Star Conference and the state of Texas from the beginning of the 2004-2005 season to the end of the 2015-2016 season and often had national implications.
“When I was recruiting, I was telling people this was the Duke and North Carolina for Division II for a number of years,” Tarleton head coach Chris Reisman said. “You played them home and away, the conference tournament and then in the regional tournament. You had such bad blood not because you didn’t respect each other but because you saw each other so dang much.”
Comparing the Tarleton and MSU rivalry to the Duke and North Carolina rivalry has similarities beyond two teams facing each other multiple times each year.
“The geographical location,” Former Tarleton head coach and current Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Lonn Reisman said. “We’re two hours apart and Tarleton and Midwestern have always had a big rivalry because we’re so close and we’ve both had great programs.”
How dominating were these schools over that 12-year period? They combined for seven Lone Star Conference regular season titles (Four for MSU and three for Tarleton), seven LSC tournament titles (Five for MSU and two for Tarleton), 19 appearances in the NCAA Division II South Central Regional (Ten for Tarleton and nine for MSU) along with seven appearances in the Elite Eight (Four for Tarleton and three for MSU).
“Both programs have been at the top of the Lone Star Conference for many years,” Lonn Reisman said. “Sometimes in a program, you’re good for one or two years. You look at what we’ve done, how many NCAA tournaments and how many Elite Eight’s we’ve both been to, you can see why it was so competitive not only in the conference but also nationally. We’ve had some marvelous games and it’s been a tremendous rivalry.”
The rivals met 31 times over the 12-year span with MSU holding a slight 16-15 overall edge in those meetings. They met five times in the LSC tournament championship game with MSU holding a 3-2 edge and the rivals met three times in the South Central Regional with the Mustangs winning on all three occasions.
“You could never count either team out whether at home or on the road because we’ve both had success at both and it’s been a rivalry that our schools, our students and our communities have enjoyed,” Lonn Reisman said. “Anytime you get Tarleton and Midwestern together, it’s going to be a heck of a ballgame.”
“When we played Tarleton, you didn’t have to promote the game because it was on the fans calendar,” MSU graduate assistant coach Nick Powell said. “After we promote it to the students, they all show up and it creates a great atmosphere for the game, and it makes it a different game.”
Lonn Reisman was the head coach at Tarleton during this run while Chris Reisman and Powell each played in the rivalry before becoming coaches at their alma maters.
Despite being on different sides for many great moments in the series, one moment stood out to all three individuals.
“I remember a couple of years ago, in 2016, when Michael Hardge dribbled the full length of the court with three seconds left to score just before the buzzer and we won by one point,” Lonn Reisman said.
“We played them at Tarleton, and they had a full court transition game-winning layup,” Powell recalled.
“Four years ago, Michael Hardge makes a shot at the buzzer here,” Chris Reisman added.
That was not the only moment that brought back memories.
“They came in here in 2014 when we were 18-0 in February and No. 2 in the country and they beat us in overtime,” Chris Reisman said.
“My freshman year (2014) we played them at Tarleton, and it came down to the last shot. Our point guard Monzaigo Williams hit a game-winning jump shot from the right wing,” Powell said. “My first two games against them were classic and I knew that was how college basketball was supposed to be.”
The final Elite Eight appearance for either team is one that Tarleton fans will never forget and one that still stings for MSU fans.
MSU entered the 2016 South Central Regional as No. 1 seed and host of the tournament. The Mustangs were upset by Lubbock Christian in the first round. Tarleton won the tournament on the Mustangs home floor and earned a spot in the Elite Eight played in Frisco, Texas.
“That was big,” Lonn Reisman said. “MSU was upset early and I can remember thinking to myself, ‘The door’s been opened’ because they are going to be very hard to beat at home and we both expected to meet in the finals that year. When they lost early, it really opened the door for us, and it was a sweet time to go to the Elite Eight.”
As both schools prepare to move on, Chris Reisman perfectly summed up everyone will remember about Tarleton and MSU.
“When people talk about these two teams, they’re going to talk about seven Elite Eight’s in a span of 12 years.”