NATHANIEL MATA | STAFF WRITER
EDINBURG — When RGV Vipers coach Joseph Blair starts to lose his cool, he begins speaking in Italian to avoid crossing the verbal line and earning a technical foul.
He did plenty of frustrated pacing and had to convert his tongue in the second quarter when the Texas Legends outscored RGV 31-15 and erased the Vipers 13-point lead to start the period.
Many of the Vipers’ 21 turnovers came during that second quarter.
Luckily for the home side, they were able to weather the Legends storm and prevail 101-92 at Bert Ogden Arena in their final home game in 2018.
“We have to get better at taking care of the ball,” Blair said. “When they made their run in the second quarter is when we were throwing the ball all over the damn court.
The Legends got hot in one quarter but RGV guard Gary Payton II was on fire from the opening tip-off. The 26-year-old Oregon State grad dunked to open the scoring and lifted the holiday crowd on numerous occasions with jams, slick finishes and hustle plays.
He finished with a career-high 29 points. RGV jumped out to a 10-0 lead just over two minutes into the game, for most of the first quarter, the Vipers kept around a 10-point cushion over their division rivals.
“Down here in the Valley, they always bring excitement and energy to the arena,” Payton II said. “That just makes us go harder and play harder.”
His contributions didn’t end at the rim on offense, he snagged six steals and attacked the glass for a career-high 15 rebounds.
“His (Payton II’s) offensive rebounding was crucial for us tonight,” Joseph said. “I’ve been very pleased with him since he’s been here.”
This is Payton’s second stint with the Vipers. He played 49 games for RGV in 2016-17 before getting a big-league call-up from the Milwaukee Bucks.
“He’s so athletic and he’s very strong so it always looks like he’s never tired,” Brazilian native Bruno Caboclo said. “He’s always flying on the ball. I think it’s great for us. We see him busting his ass and we have to do the same thing.”
The Brazilian, Caboclo, and seven-foot German international Isaiah Hartenstein were immovable forces in the low paint. Caboclo had 24 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks to alter the course of the Texas offense.
“I didn’t even know I had more than 10 rebounds but I was just playing trying to win,” Caboclo said. “I wasn’t thinking about points or anything.”
Hartenstein had 17 points and 14 boards plus two blocks. The team had nine total blocks.
“I think we had very good stops during the game,” Caboclo said. “We fought a lot and we held them at the end of the game.”
Payton II explained why the post defense can help the smaller defenders.
“It gives the guard some comfort up there to pressure the ball. If we get beat, big Bruno’s down there and Isiah is down there to have our backs.”
Dakari Tucker didn’t have the same impact as in the Vipers last game when his 27 points led the way in a showcase win. He did hit a 3-pointer with 2:17 to play to stretch the RGV lead to six, Caboclo drained a shot from the same corner to send the Bert Ogden crowd into a frenzy.
RGV will travel to Frisco’s Dr. Pepper Arena to face the Legends on Saturday night to complete the second half of the home-and-home series.
“We have them again in two days,” Payton II said. “They know us, we know them. It’s just a matter of who comes out and who throws the first punch.
The Vipers will be back on home court Jan. 3 when they welcome the Santa Cruz Warriors.