EDINBURG — After more than a month on the road, the UTRGV Vaqueros were looking to snap a five-game losing streak and notch a quality win in their Western Athletic Conference home opener.
Despite getting off to a sluggish start, the Vaqueros rebounded in a big way and rallied from an early 13-point deficit to claim a hard-fought 76-64 win over the first place Kansas City Roos on Thursday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“It feels great,” starting shooting guard Jordan Jackson said. “We’ve been on the road for about a month and we’ve had some tough games under our belt, but coming home with our home crowd and just the feeling of playing on your home court. There’s nothing better than that, it was special.”
After a back-and-forth start, the Roos started to pull away thanks to their ability to drive the baseline, knock down open 3-pointers and physical play down low. After a scoring barrage, Kansas City staked a 22-9 lead midway through the first half.
But the Vaqueros transitioned from a zone defense to an airtight full court press that helped ignite the early stages of their rally. Then Jackson delivered an exclamation point slam when he pickpocketed the Roos’ point guard and threw down a rim-rattling dunk that brought the home crowd to its feet.
“We were kind of down a little bit, and we needed a momentum shift or something to get us going. I just saw the opportunity and took advantage of it,” Jackson said. “Connor was running on the wing and I wanted to get it back kind of do like a little pepper, but the dude just stayed in front of Connor, so I took advantage of it.”
Jackson’s ferocious slam cut the Roos lead to six and sparked a palpable change in energy in the building. The Vaqueros started spreading the floor offensively and ratcheted up their intensity on both ends until their shooters got into a comfortable rhythm.
“We started off just missing shots. I thought they came out and they were playing really physical,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “Our guys were playing too straight up and down, so I told them they’ve got to drop their hips and we’ve got to initiate the contact. We were taking the blow; we’ve got to deliver the blow. Once we started doing that and making a few shots, we got into our rhythm.”
“That’s one thing our coach is always talking about,” starting point guard Javon Levi said. “People are going to bump us and be physical with us, so we’ve got to learn how to take the bumps and be physical back.”
Lesley Varner led the charge offensively for UTRGV down the stretch in the first half. The senior forward broke the seal from 3-point land with a few clutch shots and got to the free-throw line at will to trim Kansas City’s halftime lead to 35-33.
Varner finished the night with 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
The Vaqueros carried that momentum into the second half and got off to a hot start by pummeling the Roos on the offensive glass 18-6 and outscoring them in transition 17-3.
“That’s our style of basketball. We haven’t been doing that as of late and we’ve been getting back accustomed to doing that like we did tonight. Get the ball and push it, don’t even look for anything else. That’s what we want to do; we want to run people.”
UTRGV also played its brand of gritty, tough defense throughout the second half, frequently switching between zone, man, full-court press and half-court trap schemes. Levi and Jackson led the way defensively for the Vaqueros down the stretch, holding Kansas City to 0% 3-point shooting in the half.
“We’ve had a hard time in the last few games of finding shooters, so we locked in on it. We’ll take a layup; we just don’t want to give up any 3s. I think that’s what we laid our hat on and we stuck to it.”
The Vaqueros outscored the Roos by 25 points in the final 30 minutes of play.
Levi finished with a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double and Jackson ended the night with a game-high 17 points on 63.6% shooting, as UTRGV flexed its muscles as a strong second-half squad and improved to 5-1 at home for the season.
“That was definitely our best second half all year. We’ve been on the road and took some tough losses, but we were playing good teams though,” Levi said. “You want to take care of your home court, so we really put emphasis on trying to come out here and take of home court while giving the crowd a nice little show.”
UTRGV will return to action to host Chicago State at 7 p.m. on Saturday.