RGV Vipers get back on winning track, beating South Bay Lakers to take first place in Western Conference

HIDALGO — The RGV Vipers entered Thursday’s game having lost five of their past six, so guard Monte Morris’ mindset was to come out “ultra aggressive.”

He wanted to have the ball in his hands as often as possible, attacking to score or setting up his teammates for quality looks.

“The guys trusted me so I could make plays,” Morris said. “They just trusted me all night, and I tried to do the best I could.”

Morris scored 20 points and dished out a career-high 17 assists as RGV snapped its losing skid, beating the South Bay Lakers 124-118 at State Farm Arena.

The win lifts the Vipers to 16-9 on the year, passing the Lakers (14-9) for the best record in the G League’s Western Conference.

“We knew this was a big-time game,” Morris said. “We never try to get too high or too low about the games, but we needed this one tonight to get us back on track.”

Zhou Qi led the Vipers in scoring with 23 points, while Tyler Lydon had 19 points with 14 rebounds, Cleanthony Early had 19 points and Isaiah Hartenstein had 18 points with seven rebounds.

RGV scored 78 points in the paint and shot 57.0 percent from the field, including 67.3 percent in the first half.

“With our recent slide, losing three in a row, it’s good to come back against a really good team,” RGV Vipers coach Matt Brase said. “Our guys accepted the challenge, and I thought just our focus and our energy level was way different.”

The Vipers shot 71.7 percent (43 of 60) on 2-point shots. Morris and Brase credited the team’s forwards for getting open on backdoor cuts to the basket — something Morris said he expected to be open against a Lakers team that attacks passing lanes on the perimeter.

On 2-point shots, Zhou was 9 of 10, while Lydon and Early were each 8 of 10.

“We thought it was going to be more of a kick-out game for 3s, but it was more of a roll game,” Brase said. “(Morris) had good poise, good patience and found our guys right at the rim. We had an aggressive mindset tonight.”

Hartenstein also did most of his scoring on rolls to the basket, converting all nine of his shot attempts. Brase credited him for sticking to his strengths.

Hartenstein was playing Thursday’s game with a bandage above his left eye after suffering a cut that required stitches when he was elbowed during Tuesday’s game against Northern Arizona. He said he played through a headache and that his eye occasionally twitches shut.

“But in general, it’s OK. I guess I was OK. I went 9 for 9, so,” Hartenstein said, laughing.

The Lakers held the lead for the last time at 48-47 early in the second quarter before the Vipers went on a 21-2 run. RGV maintained that cushion most of the rest of the way, ballooning its lead as large as 21 early in the fourth quarter before South Bay started to claw back.

The Lakers pulled as close as three points twice, first moving within 116-113 with 1:47 to play. Zhou answered with a putback to extend RGV’s lead to five, but South Bay again pulled within three on a pair of free throws. The margin was still 118-115 in the final minute before Zhou knocked down a 3-pointer with 44.9 seconds remaining to ice the game.

“It’s huge for him,” Brase said of Zhou, who has split time between the Vipers and Houston Rockets this season. “A lot of it has been come in game day, play, and fly out the next morning. But he was able to stay in the Valley and didn’t have to take a flight on game day, had a good practice with us, got to watch film with us, and got a little comfortable being here for a bit, which is good for a young guy like him.”

For much of the early part of the season, the Vipers and Lakers held the best records in the G League. The Lakers jumped out to a 10-2 start through Dec. 8 — the day the Vipers capped a 13-game win streak to move to 13-3 on the year.

Since then, both teams have had middling results. The Vipers entered Thursday at 15-9, having lost five of their past six games, while the Lakers came into State Farm Arena at 14-8, having lost four of their past six.

The squads still held the two best winning percentages in the Western Conference, with the Vipers leapfrogging the Lakers for the West’s best mark on Thursday.

“It was very important that we just get back on track and back on our winning ways that we know we can,” Hartenstein said. “In general, we played a lot better today as a team.”