EDINBURG — With time running out and the team needing to turn the tide, the UTRGV Vaqueros settled in defensively and looked for a badly needed stop.
After securing buckets on their last five trips up court, UTRGV had trimmed Grand Canyon’s late lead to five and needed a disruptive defensive series to propel its comeback bid.
Instead, the Vaqueros watched the Antelopes knock down three straight shots from the perimeter as part of a red hot 3-point shooting night, as Grand Canyon secured an 87-79 road victory to hand UTRGV its fourth consecutive loss in Western Athletic Conference play Thursday at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“We just didn’t play defense,” Vaqueros junior point guard Javon Levi said. “That’s why they had open shots. Anybody can hit open shots. We didn’t play any defense.”
“Our defense wasn’t very good. Our defense hasn’t been very good all year and that’s been our sticking point all year,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “We were top 10 in about five or six categories last year, and this year we’re just not defending. That’s the bottom line. … That’s not acceptable.”
The loss bumps UTRGV down to 2-5 as the second round of conference play is about set to kick into gear, but more significantly comes as the most recent result in downhill defensive slide for the group.
The Vaqueros have surrendered 65 points or more in each game during their current four-game skid and in nine of their last 11 contests, dropping each of those games.
“We’ve been terrible all year defensively,” Levi said.
The defensive struggles started early on for the Vaqueros, as the Antelopes made each of their first two 3-point attempts to jump out to a quick 8-2 lead.
UTRGV closed the gap and kept it tight by slashing to the rim, finishing through contact and converting at the free throw line. The team, however, was only able to move ahead briefly a point before fading midway through the first half.
The Vaqueros went into the half trailing 38-35 despite enjoying a decided 25-8 advantage in transition points, mostly because of the Antelopes’ efficient shooting numbers when their offense was allowed to set up in the half court.
Grand Canyon shot the ball at 53.8% clip from the floor in the opening half and showed no signs of slowing down.
“Any time we weren’t turning them over, they were scoring,” Levi said. “We’ve got to create turnovers and missed shots and rebounds. They go hand in hand.”
In the second half, UTRGV was able to spread the wealth a little more offensively to keep hanging around despite Grand Canyon’s hot night from the floor.
The team dished out 13 second-half assists, as graduate student guard Jordan Jackson and freshman forward Quinton Johnson took over offensively as the group mounted its comeback attempt. Jackson poured in a team-high 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, while Johnson scored 15 and Levi chipped in with a 15-point, 13-assist double-double.
But the Antelopes continued to put up crooked numbers from 3-point range, sinking 12-of-20 shots from behind the arc on the night outscoring the Vaqueros by 21 points from the perimeter.
“Yeah it definitely made it harder down the stretch,” said Vaqueros senior forward Lesley Varner, who scored all nine of his points in the second half. “A 3 is worth more than a two, so we’ve just got to continue to work at the defensive end.”
“They haven’t shot 3s against anyone other than us. It’s a lack of effort and a lack of toughness,” Hill said. “That starts with me. That’s representing me, and the one thing I am is tough. They’re representing me, so we’ll fix that.”
Grand Canyon’s shooting prowess, particularly late in the shot clock, caused some consternation for UTRGV.
On multiple trips down the floor late in the half, the Antelopes buried deep shots in the waning seconds of the shot clock seemingly every time UTRGV crept close. The shots had a visibly deflating effect on Vaqueros defenders, who threw up their hands in frustration.
“It was kind of tough, but we’ve just got to continue to finish after the possession,” Varner said. “We’ve got to continue to just keep that intensity all the way through the play.”
UTRGV clawed to within three points of the lead in the final 8 minutes of play, but ultimately couldn’t keep up and trailed by as much as 11 in the final minutes. Hill, Levi and Varner all agreed the Vaqueros were in need of a hard reset defensively in their return to the hardwood.
“(We need to improve) everything defensively, whether it’s rebounding, staying in front of the ball, talking or helping out. Everything,” Levi said.
“Coming down the stretch we’ve got to get stops. We’ve got to get lockdowns, which is three stops,” Hill said. “We’ve got to keep people out of the paint. We’re not doing it, so we’ve got to get better.”
The Vaqueros will close out their three-game home stand when they host Cal State Bakersfield to kick off the second round of WAC play at 7 p.m. Saturday at UTRGV Fieldhouse before hitting the road for a pair of games against Kansas City and Chicago State.