EDINBURG — In his team’s first game on its home floor this season, UTRGV senior forward Lesley Varner shuffled back down the court and settled in to his position defensively at the top of the key.
A Howard Payne Yellow Jackets guard heaved up a deep 3-pointer that clanked off the rim. Varner hustled over to the elbow, leaped over an opposing player and started pushing the ball upcourt in transition.
He hesitated before throwing a lob senior Isaiah Fontaine, who hammered home an alley-oop. Seconds later, after the Yellow Jackets inbounded the ball, Varner was there to pick the point guard’s pocket and glide to the hoop for an uncontested layup.
Varner’s flurry of activity was the start of a dominant run for UTRGV, which returned to its physical brand of defense and frenetic fastbreak attack en route to a 93-42 win over Howard Payne on Monday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“We all knew that was our strong point,” Varner said. “We had them athleticism wise and as far as size, so we just tried to dominate that factor of the game.”
The Vaqueros’ athleticism played a deciding role in the contest, as the team was able to play effective full-court defense and get out in transition for open looks.
Specifically, it was all about speed for UTRGV. The team scored 30 points off a jaw-dropping 20 turnovers and outscored the Yellow Jackets 27-3 in fastbreaks, which marked significant improvements in each area since the squad’s season opening loss at South Dakota State.
“That’s our strongest thing offensively when we get out in transition and running, especially us two,” junior guard Javon Levi said of he and Varner. “Coach told us that we were playing pretty slow last game, so we tried to play pretty fast this game. I think it worked out for us because that’s when we’re at our best when we get out in transition.”
“Our first game out, we were impersonating a Vaqueros basketball team. This is how we play,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “We came out and played the way that we practice every day and we played the way that we’re supposed to play. I’m ecstatic about the game today.”
The offensive efficiency showed against Howard Payne, as the Vaqueros appeared to settle into the rhythm of their new offensive system in Game 2. The team shot 58.7% from field-goal range and an impressive 47.6% from the perimeter, as its unselfish style of play resulted in open shot attempts all over the court.
“I think we just came out and executed the offense,” Levi said. “We made a big jump from last game as far as just running the offense and letting it work for us.”
The Vaqueros also dominated on the glass, nearly doubling the Yellow Jackets in rebounds. Varner and senior forward Isiah Fontaine led the way in that department, combining for 13 rebounds and eight on the offensive end, which aided UTRGV in scoring 21 second-chance points on the night.
“It’s always a big factor,” Varner said. “I just try to crash offensive rebounds just to get the team a second look at a score.”
Levi tallied his first double-double of the season after scoring 10 points and dishing 12 assists, while also leading UTRGV with four of the team’s 12 steals. But he was just one of many Vaqueros to light up the scoreboard.
All 11 players who suited and appeared in the contest for UTRGV sank at least one shot.
“I love it, and that’s what I’m trying to tell my guys,” Hill said. “We can’t worry about who scores. If you play the right way, everybody will score.”
Four players reached double-digit point totals in the game, but none were as splashy as Quinton Johnson, a redshirt freshman guard. He converted on a team-high 5-of-7 3-point attempts and led the team in scoring with 19 in his home debut.
“(Quinton) is going to be big for us this year,” Levi said. “I know he’s been waiting to get out there and play, so I’m glad he was out there hitting shots. I mean he’s one of our best shooters, so you can expect to see a lot more of that this year for sure.”
The only disappointment on the night for the Vaqueros? That the team was robbed of their chance to top 100 points after a leak in the arena ceiling cause officials to wave off the rest of the game with a little more than 9 minutes remaining.
“I think we would’ve cracked about 125 if we had kept playing,” Levi said. “So, yeah, I’m a little disappointed we didn’t get there.”
The Vaqueros will make their return to their hardwood with three games in three days this weekend. UTRGV will travel to Corpus Christi to take on North Dakota State at 5 p.m. Friday and Stony Brook at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Islander Invitational, before kicking off the first leg of the South Texas Showdown against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 4 p.m. Sunday.