UTRGV shakes off rust in opening win, looks ahead to Oklahoma

EDINBURG — It needed a couple seasons, but UTRGV coach Lew Hill finally has a roster full of his own players tailor-made to run his up-tempo style.

UTRGV pushed the pace late in the first half in Tuesday’s opener against Division II Texas A&M-Commerce. The Vaqueros seemed to be rolling toward a blowout victory after building a 57-38 lead under four minutes into the second half, but the Lions were on the comeback trail.

“It wasn’t a big run from them (Texas A&M-Commerce). It was gradual,” Hill said. “We forgot what got us the lead in the first place. We were steady breaking down defensively and steady taking tough shots. Once you let somebody get confident, then it could be hard to stop.”

The Lions pulled within one point of UTRGV at 67-66, seven minutes and nine seconds after the Vaqueros opened up their biggest lead of the game. UTRGV traded baskets with Texas A&M-Commerce, but never trailed in the second half. UTRGV went on to win its opener 91-84 at UTRGV Fieldhouse.

The Vaqueros won with balanced scoring, led by sophomore guard Greg Bowie’s 19 points.

“We had almost five guys in double figures. That’s why we hit 91 points,” Hill said. “I have to give credit to the guys for fighting it off.”

Bowie’s previous career-high was 18 points which came in UTRGV’s 79-76 overtime loss to Seattle U last season.

“It’s all just a confidence thing with me,” Bowie said. “Coming into the gym early every day to get my reps and having that show in the game. This is what I’ve been working for and why I’ve been practicing so long. Coming out with that confidence is what I needed.”

UTRGV senior forward Terry Winn III, a preseason All-WAC second-team selection, was one of two players who provided an offensive spark in the midst of Texas A&M-Commerce’s comeback. Winn scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half. Junior forward Lesley Varner II chipped in 14 of his own during the final 20 minutes.

“I needed to take the shots that coach (Hill) created for me in the offense,” Winn said. “It was the first game of the season, and last first game for me, so I had to keep it simple and not try to do too much.”

Following two and a half years of announcements, arena construction delays and a postponement, UTRGV will host Oklahoma at the brand-new Bert Ogden Arena on Friday. The Sooners’ trip to the Valley means former Pan American University coach Lon Kruger returns to Edinburg as OU’s coach for the first time. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

Friday night will mark the second time a Lon Kruger-led program will make its way into the RGV. As the head coach at Illinois, Kruger brought the Fighting Illini into the former UTPA Fieldhouse during the 1998-99 season.

The Sooners were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 this season.

“I’m definitely excited because it’s a big attraction for the city,” Winn said. “Hopefully we can get some fans to come out there and give them a reason to want to come back to the (UTRGV) Fieldhouse and watch us play throughout the season. We’re excited to play against better competition so we can go out there and compete.”

Hill was an assistant on two of Kruger’s coaching staffs at UNLV (2004-11) and the Sooners (2011-16).

“We can’t let them catch the ball where they want to catch it. We have to make them catch it off the 3-point line,” Hill said. “If they catch it inside the 3-point line or on the 3-point line, then that will cause us problems. Their offense has to start further out. We’ll have to contest every pass and contest every shot.”