EDINBURG — With precious seconds ticking off the clock and their opponent starting to close the gap, the UTRGV Vaqueros men’s basketball team desperately needed a spark.
Graduate student shooting guard Jordan Jackson dribbled the ball up court before stopping between the wing and top of the key. Jackson hesitated before lobbing a pass to senior forward Lesley Varner in the corner, who knocked down an uncontested 3-pointer.
After a defensive stop on the next possession, Varner stormed through the lane running in transition and rolled a layup off his fingers, around the rim and in with contact for a three-point play.
Varner scored 12 of his team’s final 15 points as the Vaqueros held off a second-half comeback attempt to top Seattle U 79-72 and improve their season-best winning streak to five games Saturday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
UTRGV improved to 11-14 overall and 7-5 in the WAC. Seattle dropped to 12-14 overall and 5-6 in the conference.
“I just felt like I had to step up for my team in that moment to win the game,” Varner said.
“I was calling plays for him and he was executing them,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “When we’ve got a hot hand, we want to go to it.”
The Vaqueros jumped out in front for the initial advantage, but ultimately traded leads with the RedHawks six times throughout the first half of play.
UTRGV grabbed its first lead and successfully retook it again before the half thanks largely to its efficient night shooting from 3-point land and its pressure defensively along the perimeter.
The Vaqueros sank four of nine 3-point attempts in the opening half and finished shooting at a 44.6% clip from behind the arc. While Seattle U held a three-point edge from deep, UTRGV’s tenacious defense held the sharpshooting RedHawks to 6-of-20 shooting from the perimeter throughout the night.
“We had a great game plan defensively on a few of their key guys and I thought we executed it, not perfectly but enough to get a good solid win against a really good Seattle team,” Hill said. “We wanted to keep them under 10 3s, and they got five in the first half. They only ended up with six, so we clamped down, didn’t help off as much and didn’t let the shooters get free. We thought if we could them under 10, we would win the game and we did.”
The Vaqueros closed the first on a 12-4 run punctuated by a ferocious Jackson slam to carry a 41-36 advantage into the break. The team also carried that momentum into the second half to build on their lead.
“(Coach Hill) told us that we were going to get their biggest shot coming out in the second half and be prepared for it,” Varner said. “Hit back when they hit us.”
The Vaqueros led by as much as 10 in the second half, while Seattle U stormed back to retake a two-point edge with 7:35 remaining. That’s when Jackson and Varner took over.
“We’ve got different things to get him and Jordan the ball, or whoever’s rolling at that time, in their sweet spots and then for them to execute. I told him today, ‘Every time you get it, you don’t have to shoot it,’” Hill said. “There’s 100 battles in every game and you’re not going to win every battle. When you don’t win the battle, just pass it. That’s what we need from him and Jordan because we need them to score, but we need them to take great shots every time.”
Varner finished with a team-high 23 points and eight rebounds, while Jackson added 15 points and four assists. Forward Sean Rhea posted a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double and point guard Javon Levi tallied 10 points and a team-best seven assists.
The Vaqueros dominated the defensive struggle and battle on the boards again, a constant theme during their winning streak, and improved to 11-1 when they outrebound their opponents.
“To win in the game of basketball, I think you have to defend and rebound at a high level. We’re not turning people over as much as we’re used to, but there’s different ways to win the game,” Hill said. “We don’t have that type of team where we just steal the ball like we did this year. We’re still forcing people to turn the ball over, but we’re just not getting as many steals, so we call it ‘Pressuring without gambling.’”
“We’re riding the wave and we love it. It’s a great feeling. Morale is at an all-time high,” Jackson said. “Coach told us this could happen, and the biggest thing was that everybody believed in it. We stuck together as a team through the rough patches and came through. We’re going to try to keep this thing going for as long as we can.”
The Vaqueros will return to action to take on UT-Permian Basin at noon Tuesday in Edinburg before heading out for a three-game road trip with stops at New Mexico State, Cal State Bakersfield and Grand Canyon.