EDINBURG — In chaotic climactic scene, Sam Houston State frantically dribbled the ball up the floor looking for just one more bucket to prolong the game for another 5 minutes. The Bearkats’ point guard dribbled right and crashed toward the hoop before putting up a wild shot off the top of the glass.
Vaqueros senior forward Lesley Varner was there yet again to wrest away another clutch rebound and took a rough intentional foul with 3 seconds remaining. Varner sunk his final two free throws to ice the contest, as his career night down low helped spark UTRGV’s offense in an 90-86 double overtime victory over Sam Houston State on Tuesday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“I pretty much just let it come to me tonight and kept it simple,” Varner said. “I was hitting shots and my team found me on the right plays.”
Varner shot the lights out for the Vaqueros, powering their offense with his dynamic scoring and poise. His play down the stretch run helped UTRGV battled back late in the contest to earn the overtime opportunity.
The Vaqueros trailed for the first 35 minutes of the contest, before Varner gave them their first lead with a big run of his own. Varner knocked down three straight buckets — a contested layup, a jumper from the top of the key near the elbow and a spot-up 3-pointer on the wing — to score seven straight points for UTRGV and give the team a three-point advantage late.
“Any time I felt like I was in the zone, I was just taking good shots,” he said. “Then I started kind of feeling it down the stretch a little bit and then it was about just taking advantage of that while I had it down.”
Varner became the focal point of the Vaqueros’ offense in the final 5 minutes of regulation and both overtime periods. He netted UTRGV’s first two buckets of the first overtime by nailing a pair of heavily contested midrange jumpers.
He also added the first two points of the second overtime period on a crafty, acrobatic layup through contact and capped the period of with his two free throws to seal it. Varner’s teammates and coaches both noticed his sensational play early and decided to keep feeding the hot hand.
“I started running more isos for (Lesley),” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “I felt Les had it going, so I started running a lot of iso plays for him, Jordan and Javon to get in the paint. And when we missed, they were doing a really good job of helping. We were skipping it and not making shots, so we just kept attacking the basket.”
Varner tallied new career highs in points and rebounds, his first ever 30-point game and ended the night with a double-double. He finished the game 33 points, 13 rebounds and tied a career best with five steals.
Varner wasn’t the only Vaquero post player to make a significant impact down the stretch against Sam Houston State, though. Junior center Anthony Bratton came off the bench for the first time this season and posted season highs with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
“I think this is the first time in my four seasons here where I had two guys with double-doubles,” Hill said. “I took Anthony out of the starting lineup because I thought these guys have got so much to give. They’re so talented and I’ve got to set the bar high for them and challenge them every single day. I challenged both of them, and they responded. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a player, and they responded in a big way tonight.”
“I feel like it did make a difference,” Bratton said of he and Varner’s post play. “Coach Hill challenges me very day to run hard and rebound. All I have to do is rebound the ball to help the team win. He said, ‘Be tough,’ and that’s what I showed tonight in the win and helping the team out.”
Bratton and Varner’s dominant presence in the paint late in the game made the difference on both sides of the ball, forcing the Bearkats into poor shots and giving the Vaqeuros second chance points.
Their aggressive performances forced Sam Houston State to focus their defensive manpower on the post, which created space and scoring opportunities for UTRGV’s guards.
“Me being aggressive really helped open up the guards and open up shots because they were really focused on me scoring a layup or getting a rebound,” Bratton said. “Being that aggressive really helped the team and helped Les get open. If I can be that aggressive every time, then we’ll be good.”
The Vaqueros also benefitted greatly from the return of starting point guard Javon Levi, who has missed the team’s last four contests with a calf injury. His presence helped the team continue to play its physical brand of defense.
But Levi tallied seven points and a team-high 13 assists in his return, which helped jumpstart a UTRGV offense that’s been sluggish at times since his departure.
“Our DNA is pressure defense,” Hill said. “Defense is what we are and who we are, but tonight we added offense to it. That was the difference.”
The Vaqueros will return to action for the final game of a four-game homestand against Mid-America Christian at 7 p.m. Friday at UTRGV Fieldhouse before taking off for a four-state, five-game road trip for the next month.