EDINBURG — With his team trailing in the second half, UTRGV freshman wing Quinton Johnson batted away a pass and picked up the loose ball in transition racing up court.
Johnson fired a lob ahead to graduate student guard Jordan Jackson, who threw down vicious two-handed slam through heavy contact. Jordan converted the three-point play from the free throw line to cap a 12-2 Vaqueros run.
Jackson’s dynamic dunk gave UTRGV its first lead of the night 3:34 into the second half, and the Vaqueros never looked back en route to a 70-59 come-from-behind victory over Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“Coach just told us we’ve got to start finishing out close games,” Johnson said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games. He told us we’ve got to defend, be tough and just finish our game. That’s what we put emphasis on tonight.”
“I’m proud of our guys. We haven’t been winning and getting close, but tonight we found a way to get over the hump,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “It all started with talking, communicating and defense. This is who we are, what we’re about and this is the culture this program has been built on. We got back to basics and this is the result.”
It was a tale of two halves for the Vaqueros, whose sluggish start characterized much of the first half and energetic comeback defined the second.
The Roadrunners jumped out to a quick 11-2 advantage after knocking down each of their first four shots. Cal State Bakersfield’s perimeter shooting and efficiency inside helped the team maintain its edge throughout the first half after leading by as much as 11.
UTRGV, meanwhile, struggled to get going on the offensive end, but kept things tight. The Vaqueros scored 27 of 29 first-half points either from the free throw line or inside the paint, but shot just 10% from mid-range and 3-point land.
“They were hitting shots in the first half, and you never want a team to start hitting shots and get hot,” Jackson said. “We just buckled down defensively and made sure we got hands up on shooters, boxed out and only gave them one shot. I think that was the recipe for success tonight.”
The Vaqueros started to turn things around after sprinting out of the gate to start the second. Their 12-2 lead to begin the half gave them a three-point edge that the team continued to build upon from that point forward.
“Throughout the season, one of our Kryptonites has been coming out of the half strong,” Jackson said. “Coach always says the first 5 minutes of every half are going to determine who’s going to win and lose, so we just wanted to come out with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and effort in those first 5 minutes. It kind of took us to the top and we just rode that wave throughout the game.”
UTRGV outscored Cal State Bakersfield 15-4 in the first 5 minutes of the second half and quickly got the Roadrunners in foul trouble. CSU Bakersfield put UTRGV into the bonus with 13:30 to play in the game, and the Vaqueros took advantage by upping their physicality and repeatedly driving into the lane possession after possession looking to get to the free throw line.
“We just had to keep on attacking,” Johnson said. “They came out very aggressive, so we had to be aggressive back and just keep on attacking them back by pounding on the glass and playing defense.”
The Vaqueros induced 32 Roadrunner fouls and made 64.4% of their attempts from the charity stripe, outscoring Cal State Bakersfield 29-13 from the free throw line on the night.
UTRGV also won the crucial battle of the boards against the Roadrunners, the top rebounding team in the Western Athletic Conference, and played much better defensively.
The Vaqueros topped Cal State Bakersfield 40-36 on the glass, improving to 7-1 on the season when they outrebound their opponent. They also limited the Roadrunners to a 38.2% clip from the field and held them to 4-of-20 shooting from the perimeter on the night.
“They’re one of the most physical teams and one of the better rebounding teams in our league. For us to come out there and beat them on the boards, that says a lot on its own,” Jackson said. “Defensively, we worked the last couple days, the break that we had between the two games, and it was all defense and talking about defense. Tonight, I feel like we came out and executed our defense perfectly.”
Jackson finished with a team-high 17 points and three assists, while Johnson ended the night with 11 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals.
The win marks the third time this season the Vaqueros have successfully come back from a double-digit deficit and snaps a four-game losing skid for UTRGV with the second round of WAC play on the horizon.
“We want to carry this win into the second half of conference and hopefully keep rattling off wins until WACVegas,” Jackson said. “If we play defense like we did tonight in every game, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t rattle off four or five wins straight.”
The Vaqueros will get back to action for a two-game road trip that will feature stops at Kansas City at 7 p.m. Thursday and Chicago State at noon Saturday. UTRGV will then return to Edinburg to face Utah Valley at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15 to kick off a three-game home stand.