EDINBURG — UTRGV had been on the losing end of several close games at the UTRGV Fieldhouse since the start of the calendar year.
The Vaqueros tried to stage a second-half comeback against CSU Bakersfield on Jan. 10, but they couldn’t finish the job. Two days later, they couldn’t hold on to a six-point lead late against Grand Canyon. Two other home defeats to New Mexico State on Jan. 26 and to California Baptist in overtime on March 7 certainly made the 2,071 fans in attendance Wednesday nervous during the game’s waning moments.
UTRGV senior forward Terry Winn III didn’t feel nervous coming out of a timeout with 20.9 seconds left. The Vaqueros trailed by a point and the call was to put the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Winn was fouled on a layup attempt by Grambling State’s Devante Jackson, which put him at the line for two free throws with less than 10 seconds to play.
Winn made both foul shots. This time, UTRGV (20-16) held onto the lead on its home floor in a 74-73 triumph over Grambling State in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
The win is UTRGV’s 20th, its first 20-win season since the 2001-02 campaign. It is also the program’s first postseason win at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“We had some shots go in (today) that didn’t go in at that time period,” Winn said. “I just had to make the free throws, really.”
Winn’s free-throw attempts were the only two he had all night. He finished with 10 points. Tyson Smith continued his strong offensive performances that date back to last week’s WAC Tournament in Las Vegas. Smith scored a team-high 19 points. Along with point guard Javon Levi, Smith dished out seven assists.
“I challenged them at halftime and then challenged them again with 16 minutes to go. ‘Come on, guys. We gotta go and play a lot harder,’” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “My expectations for those guys are so high. Sometimes, they don’t know how great they can be. Their expectations are not as high as mine. As a coach, it’s up to me to get it out of them. At the right time, I think I got it out of them or they got it out of themselves.”
UTRGV and Grambling State were going tit-for-tat on the offensive end in the first half. Both teams combined to shoot 59.3 percent from the floor (35 of 59 field goal attempts combined), but UTRGV owned a 42-41 lead at the break.
Hill added a wrinkle in the second half by inserting reserve forward Isaiah Fontaine into the game. Fontaine didn’t see the floor in the first half, but he collected a point and three rebounds in seven second-half minutes.
Fontaine’s seven minutes on the floor were the most since he played 11 minutes in a 77-46 blowout win against Chicago State on Jan. 31.
“He came in and gave us great energy. It was his turn,” Hill said of Fontaine. “I always tell everybody that you never know when your turn is going to come, so you must be ready. He was ready tonight. He started giving us a defensive presence down low. I’m really happy for him.”
After Winn’s free throws, Smith was tasked with guarding Grambling State guard Ivy Smith Jr., who was named as an All-SWAC Second Team performer this season.
Smith Jr. scored 11 points and handed out 13 assists on Wednesday.
“His size makes him difficult because he’s so quick and at a low level,” Tyson Smith said. “His center of gravity is different than mine since I’m a bigger guard who’s solid up top. I’m used to it because I’m guarding Javon (Levi) at practice, but it’s still a tough matchup on any given day.”
With time winding down in regulation, Smith Jr. drove in on Smith and threw up a shot attempt that hung on the rim and fell off, ending the Tigers’ (17-17) season.
“I didn’t even see the shot because I tried to block it,” Smith said. “When I turned back around, I saw the ball came out and Solo(mon Hainna) had the rebound. I was hyped.”
UTRGV learned late Wednesday that Texas Southern will be its opponent in the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. The Vaqueros will host the Tigers at 7 p.m. Monday at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.