EDINBURG — With time winding down and a sellout crowd at UTRGV Fieldhouse on its feet, junior point guard Javon Levi raced up court. The Vaqueros’ junior point guard fired a pass to senior power forward Lesley Varner on the elbow.
Varner sized up his defender, crossed over his dribble, stepped back and launched a heavily contested midrange jumper that found the bottom of the net with 4 seconds left on the clock.
California Baptist guard Ferron Flavors Jr. sprinted up the floor and heaved up a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Flavors’ shot tapped the front of the rim, careened off the backboard, bounced off the back of the rim and rolled out, as the Vaqueros vanquished the Lancers 79-76 in overtime thanks to a dominant defensive effort and goliath games from Varner and graduate transfer shooting guard Jordan Jackson in their final regular season home game Friday night.
The victory also secures UTRGV the No. 2 overall seed heading into next weekend’s Western Athletic Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
“Amazing. I’m lost for words,” Varner said. “I just thank God for that last shot, man. I just feel like he guided it there for me. Javon looked ahead, and I was just feeling good and hit the big-time shot.”
“I’m still like trying to come down from it. This dude right here was incredible. For the past two or three weeks man, this dude has completely taken over. He’s gotten his Mamba Mentality and his Kobe (Bryant) mode, and he’s just been great for us,” Jackson said of Varner. “He’s been leading us night in and night out. It felt great to be back with my guys, pull this one out for the hometown and solidify second place, something that hasn’t been done in I don’t know how long. I don’t have much to say, man.”
In what can only be described as the early favorite for the program’s game of the decade, the Vaqueros and Lancers traded shots throughout the night like a pair of prize fighters looking to deliver a knockout blow.
The contest featured a staggering 10 ties and 12 lead changes, as both teams fought ferociously for the coveted second-place finish in WAC play.
Although UTRGV raced to a quick 7-2 advantage in the opening 2 minutes of play, California Baptist started off the night knocking down shot after shot from behind the 3-point line to carry a narrow 30-28 lead into halftime.
However, with a raucous sellout crowd behind them on senior night, the Vaqueros came out for the second half looking more amped than ever.
“Yes, (this was the loudest I’ve heard this building),” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said, a sentiment echoed by Jackson and Varner. “The last game is always the loudest. I love it and the fans were awesome.”
The proof was on the defensive end of the floor.
UTRGV generated 14 steals on the night, led by Varner’s seven and Levi’s five, and pulverized the Lancers in the fastbreak 24-6. That defensive tenacity allowed the Vaqueros to narrow the deficit down the stretch and bring the team within striking distance of retaking the lead.
The Vaqueros ultimately found themselves down by three with the shot clock turned off.
That’s when Levi took over with an isolation approach and buried a deep 3-pointer from the top of the arc to tie the game with 24 seconds left before Sean Rhea notched a game-saving block by stuffing a dunk on the other end as time expired.
“I looked at it like it was in slow motion,” Jackson said. “I saw the ball going up and I was just like ‘Oh my God.’ Then it went in and I didn’t know how to react.”
“I told them two, ‘We’re going to win or lose with you defensively,’” Hill said. “At the end, we won with them. They both made big plays, big blocks, big steals and big deflections.”
The Vaqueros and Lancers continued to trade buckets back and forth throughout a tense overtime period up until Varner’s clutch jumper to end it.
UTRGV’s senior starters, Jackson and Varner, combined for a staggering 46 of the Vaqueros’ 79 points to lead UTRGV to the win.
“I just tried to get them relaxed and get them in a flow and just let it happen,” Hill said. “Once they did that, they were marvelous to say the least making big baskets and took turns making play after play.”
Now the white-hot Vaqueros will head to Las Vegas for the WAC Tournament after winning eight of their final 10 regular season games and moving from sixth to second place in the conference over the second half of WAC play.
“We’ve always felt like the hottest team in this conference. Since the beginning of the second half of conference, we’ve felt like we’re unbeatable,” Jackson said. “We’ve just been clicking at the right time, and that’s exactly what coach has been telling us.”
UTRGV will face Cal State Bakersfield in the opening round of the WAC Tournament on Thursday, where it will look to keep rolling. The madness of March arrived a week early for the Vaqueros and they’ll hope to keep grooving their way to the big dance.
“Most definitely it came early,” Varner said. “Get ready for WACVegas.”