UTRGV men bounced out of WAC tournament semifinals

UTRGV guard Tyson Smith reacts during a semifinal game at the 2019 WAC Men's Basketball Tournament Friday in Las Vegas. (Mark Nessia/WAC)

UTRGV coach Lew Hill joked in a Thursday press conference after the Vaqueros’ WAC quarterfinal round win that he didn’t want his team to be known as the “Comeback Kids.” Hill prefers to see his team get a lead from the start and take the game from there.

Whether Hill is proud of the tagline or not, UTRGV won two of its biggest games of the season at Grand Canyon and at CSU Bakersfield via furious second-half comebacks.

The Vaqueros were in the middle of another daunting deficit Friday night. New Mexico State built a 19-point lead six minutes into the second half.

“I just needed to calm them down and remind them that we’ve been here before,” Hill said over the phone. “‘Don’t panic and let’s play Vaquero basketball.’”

UTRGV quickly fired back with a 13-0 run to cut New Mexico State’s lead to six with 10:41 to go. The Vaqueros would pull within three points later in the half, but they couldn’t complete the comeback. New Mexico State held on to down UTRGV 79-72 in the 2019 WAC Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinals in Las Vegas.

The recipe for beating the Aggies, according to Hill, required the Vaqueros to contain dribble penetration, rebound and take smart shots.

“We did those things late when we made the comeback. That’s the best time we did that,” Hill said. “We didn’t do it in the first half and in the beginning of the second half, but we defended and rebounded the way we should have all game when we were down 19.”

UTRGV was not able to kick its offense into high gear like it did early in the first half against CSU Bakersfield. The Vaqueros were whistled for six fouls within the first eight minutes of game action. Junior forward Lesley Varner II committed two of those six fouls and had to be taken out early.

But Varner roared back in the middle of the comeback, scoring 10 of his 15 points in the second half. His old-fashioned three-point play pulled UTRGV within 74-70 with 1:44 remaining.

“That’s his growth,” Hill said. “He has so much talent that he has to believe that he’s the mismatch problem we know he is. He can guard four positions. He can play three positions. We want him to be one of those position-less players that can shoot, dribble and pass.”

In addition to Varner’s 15 points, Tyson Smith followed his 19-point performance Thursday with 23 more Friday.

Another critical moment late in the game took place after Varner slashed the lead to four. On the Vaqueros’ next possession, point guard Javon Levi missed a layup and then committed a loose ball foul with under a minute to go. The foul was Levi’s fifth, disqualifying him from the game.

“I’m proud of him because he played his butt off,” Hill said. “I told him to keep his head up because we’ll continue to play.”

While UTRGV (19-16) lost in its first-ever WAC tournament semifinal, Hill and the program intend to play postseason basketball this month.

“We’ll either play in the CBI or the CIT, but we don’t know yet,” Hill said. “I’m thinking we’ll get into one of those postseason tournaments. I think we’ll probably know more by tomorrow (Saturday). I just want the kids to keep playing because they deserve to play in the postseason.”