UTRGV defense comes through late for hard-fought win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

EDINBURG — As Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was getting ready to inbound the ball down 2 points with 23.9 seconds to play, UTRGV guard Javon Levi slapped the court with both hands.

Usually, Levi said the call to smack the hardwood comes from assistant coach Kenya Crandell. Whenever UTRGV needs a big defensive stop, Crandell will shout, “Get a smack!” The call reminds UTRGV’s defenders about the importance of staying low, which was Levi’s major focus as he switched assignments with Nick Dixon to guard AMCC’s Joseph Kilgore on the game-deciding possession.

“We had to get a stop. Me and Nick switched, and I got on 3 (Kilgore). We all knew he was getting the ball,” Levi said. “I just had to sit down and get that stop for my teammates.”

Levi had only been matched up with Kilgore three or four times to that point in the game, he said, but he knew what to expect. Kilgore had already scored 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting — all from inside the arc. Levi is listed as the shortest player on UTRGV’s roster at 5-foot-10, while Kilgore is 6-5. So, Levi was anticipating that Kilgore would look to take a midrange shot above Levi’s reach.

Levi did everything he could to deny Kilgore the ball, keeping it out of his hands for most of the possession. By the time Kilgore received a pass, he could make just a few contested dribbles before being forced into an air-ball 3-pointer as UTRGV held on for the 82-78 win on Wednesday in the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“Javon locked him down and didn’t give him anything,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “Got up under him. I don’t think he’s a great ballhandler. I think he can just rip and go and shoot over you. But Javon made him dribble and bounce it two or three times, and then the only thing he can do is shoot a contested 3, and that’s not what he does.”

Levi’s stop was a bright spot on an otherwise tough defensive day for UTRGV, as AMCC shot 53.4 percent from the field.

But Hill credited UTRGV’s pressure for wearing AMCC (2-6) down, as the Islanders connected on just 1 of 6 shots during the final five minutes.

“When you’re putting constant pressure on them, they might shoot for the first 32 minutes or 33 minutes, but it’s a 40-minute game,” Hill said. “Then you see at the end, shots started coming short. That’s what we want to do.”

On the other end, UTRGV (5-6) had its best shooting night of the season, connecting on 48.4 percent from the floor.

Nick Dixon scored 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting, while Lesley Varner Jr. netted a season-high 14 on 6-of-9 shooting. Moe McDonald chipped in 11, and Mike Hoffman also cracked double figures with 10.

As a team, UTRGV had 18 assists against 11 turnovers in only its fourth home game of the season.

“They’re comfortable. They’re in their own bed eating our food in the Valley. It makes a difference,” Hill said. “We’ve been shooting bad, but we’ve been on the road for the whole month, so we’re not able to get shots up.”

UTRGV’s offensive improvement came despite the team being without its second- and third-leading scorers in terms of points per game. Xavier McDaniel Jr. (11.5 points per game) and Jordan Jackson (8.0) both missed the game due to injury, as did forward Adonis Rwabigwi. Hill said all three players are day to day going forward.

“It impacts us a lot, because those are key players,” Levi said. “Everybody contributes on this team, but we go through practice, and this is just part of the season. We have to fight through adversity.”