UTRGV’s second-half rally too little, too late in WAC home opener

EDINBURG — It took 36 minutes of game action for UTRGV to play its best basketball of the night. The Vaqueros were down 16 points when they reached the 4:00 mark of the second half.

“I just challenged them and they took the challenge,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “When you’re down like that and your backs are against the wall, you either quit or fight. And we fought.”

The Vaqueros went on a 12-2 run, buoyed by two 3-pointers from sophomore Greg Bowie II, to cut their deficit to six points with 1:24 remaining. But UTRGV missed layups on its next two possessions that kept them at arm’s-length from CSU Bakersfield until time ran out. The Roadrunners held on for a 75-69 win Thursday at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“For some reason, we didn’t have it early,” Hill said. “It’s my responsibility to get them to bring it out early. We shouldn’t get out-toughed again. If we’re going to lose, we’ll lose but not for not being tough, nasty and scrappy. That’s who we are, but we didn’t have that today.”

This week, Hill believed he witnessed two of the best practices he’s seen from any of his teams since arriving in Edinburg in 2016.

“I was surprised by the way we played. I never expect us to play like we did tonight,” UTRGV point guard Javon Levi said. “All we can do is keep trying to have good practices and it’ll eventually translate. We let one slip away tonight, but we have to let it go. We have another one Saturday that we need to get back.”

Levi finished with 15 points, four steals and seven assists to just one turnover in 33 minutes.

“He just plays his behind off,” Hill said of Levi. “He plays with a tenaciousness, a toughness. He’s never going to back down. He did what he normally does.”

Forward Terry Winn III is in his best five-game offensive stretch since the start of the season. In UTRGV’s first five games of the season, Winn averaged 15.4 points per game. During UTRGV’s last five games entering Thursday, he posted an average of 14.2 points per game.

Winn scored a team-high 16, with 10 of his points coming at the free-throw line.

“Some nights, people are going to have your number,” Winn said. “They’ve watched film on you all week. They know what you’re going to do as soon as you catch the ball. You just have to take what the defense is giving you and don’t force it.”

The next four games won’t be any easier for the Vaqueros (9-9, 1-1) in WAC play. UTRGV plays host to WAC preseason favorite Grand Canyon at 7 p.m. Saturday before it hits the road for dates with Utah Valley and Seattle. UTRGV will then return home Nov. 26 when it faces New Mexico State, last year’s WAC champion.

“These next few games could decide where we finish in the WAC,” Hill said. “We just gave back the win we had on the road (at California Baptist on Jan. 5) when we lost tonight. You have to protect home court if you plan on being in the upper echelon of the conference.”