EDINBURG — After UTRGV used its pressing, attacking style to erase a double-digit deficit, one of UC Irvine’s guards delivered a very honest message to Vaqueros senior Nick Dixon.
“‘I don’t know how y’all practice like this every day,’” Dixon recalled hearing. “So the press, for sure it got to them.”
UTRGV’s full-court press forced a season-high 24 turnovers on Saturday, turning an 11-point halftime deficit into a 73-59 win against UC Irvine at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.
The Vaqueros closed the game on a 31-7 run during the final 8:54, holding UC Irvine to 0-for-8 shooting with six turnovers during the stretch.
“We were just attacking them and got them sped up,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “They don’t play fast. So everything was fast. Everything was fast. They were subbing, but at the end, your legs go. … We’re in great shape. We’re in the best shape in the country, you understand? That’s why our guys are fresh. Everybody else is trying to run, and they’re tired at the end.”
UTRGV’s second-half turnaround was especially pronounced on the interior.
During the first half, Irvine outrebounded UTRGV 27-11 and scored 20 points in the paint compared to UTRGV’s four. In the second half, UTRGV won the rebounding margin 20-16 and scored 16 points in the paint against Irvine’s two.
“It was mostly just not let the bigs catch the ball,” UTRGV forward Dan Kimasa said. “That’s what they’re known for. Their go-to is to go to the post. If we take that away and force them to shoot the ball, they’re going to be uncomfortable. That’s the change we made, and coach made a big call.”
Asked about his message to his players at halftime, Hill said, “You don’t want to know.”
Kimasa said the points of emphasis were rebounding and pounding the ball inside, and Dixon said the players were told to focus on their defensive rotations and avoid unnecessary fouls.
Whatever the cause, UTRGV outscored Irvine 46-21 during the second half. UTRGV’s shooting percentage improved from 30.0 percent during the first 20 minutes to 50.0 percent during the final 20, while Irvine’s numbers plummeted from 54.8 percent in the first half to 22.7 percent in the second.
“We started playing smarter. We started playing harder and tougher,” Hill said. “We started attacking. Attacking offensively and defensively. But we were doing it with discipline, and that’s what it’s about. That’s what changed. We started scraping, and fighting, and clawing, and we didn’t do that in the first half.”
That gritty nature translated to the Vaqueros attacking the basket more regularly. UTRGV attempted 12 3-pointers in the first half compared to just five in the second.
Nick Dixon led UTRGV with 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He got off to a slow start on Friday, twice fumbling the ball out of bounds for turnovers. During a timeout, Hill had a few words with Dixon on the sideline.
“That’s where he’s maturing,” Hill said. “I snapped at him a little bit. Not in a negative way, but like, ‘Come on man, let’s go.’ Before, he would not respond, but now he’s learning to respond.”
Dixon has more than doubled the point total of UTRGV’s next-leading scorer this year, so Irvine tried to neutralize him with a box-and-one defense. Dixon said it was the first time UTRGV had seen that look this year, but Irvine didn’t stay in it for long.
“Teams, they really pressure me and key in on me,” Dixon said. “Today, I didn’t handle it so well in the beginning. I just have to slow down and be a little more patient at times.”
Dan Kimasa scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, while Xavier McDaniel Jr., Lesley Varner Jr. and Johnny Crnogorac each scored eight.
Guard Javon Levi set career highs with seven assists and six rebounds, leading the team in rebounding despite being the shortest player on the roster at 5-foot-10.
UTRGV finished with a season-high 12 steals. Dixon had four, Varner had four, and Greg Bowie had three.
“We came out with a sense of urgency,” Dixon said. “We came out relaxed (in the first half). But in the second half, we came out and picked it up. Mostly defensively.”