EDINBURG — The UTRGV Vaqueros entered their second home game of the new year against the Chicago State Cougars looking to build some positive momentum heading into the thick of Western Athletic Conference play.
After a bit of a sluggish start, the Vaqueros ramped up their physicality and stormed out to an 11-2 run to break the game wide open en route to an 87-63 wire-to-wire blowout win over the visiting Cougars on Saturday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
The victory marks UTRGV’s second WAC win in three days, fourth consecutive home win and its ninth straight triumph over Chicago State.
“I thought we came out, played good and took it up another level from the last game,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “Right now, we’re getting better. Like I said before the last game, we’re doing a good job of getting better, we were just on the road, so it didn’t equate to wins. … Now that we’re healthy, we’re starting to find a groove, so that’s good.”
The Vaqueros gained their initial separation from the Cougars thanks a quick series of spot up 3-pointers off the hands of graduate student guard Jordan Jackson and senior forward Lesley Varner. The team ultimately finished the contest sinking nine of 24 of its shots from behind the arc led by Jackson, who knocked down 60% of his 3-point attempts.
“It was real big,” said Varner of his team’s 3-point shooting. “It just got us back going again to fight and finish the game out strong without getting comfortable with the lead we had.”
UTRGV continued to build on its early advantage by bringing an added level of physicality on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, the team took it to the Cougar defenders, initiating contact, putting Chicago State in foul trouble and converting 76.2% of its free throw attempts. Defensively, the Vaqueros fast, tough style of play helped generate several turnovers and flustered the opposing offense.
“We always make sure that we’re making our free throws,” Varner said. “After practice, we make sure we get 25 free throws in before we leave the gym so we can knock them down in the game.”
“We had not been physical in the past. We’ve been getting hit, bumped and losing the ball,” Jackson said. “That’s what we’ve just been focusing on: staying low, being strong, playing with a strong base. Tonight, we took the physicality to them and tried to hit them first before we could get hit. It worked out in our favor.”
UTRGV carried a 43-28 lead into the break after leading by as much as 17 in the opening half. The Vaqueros mixed it up defensively to start the second half, alternating between a physical full court press and an aggressive man-to-man set.
The change in schemes paid dividends as it led to 15 steals for UTRGV, which tallied 22 points off turnovers and prevented the Cougars from putting together any offensive consistency.
“We pride ourselves on defense. The defense has been up and down; we’ve had some really good games and we’ve had some really bad games,” Jackson said. ”Tonight was definitely one of those good ones on the defensive end. We rebounded well, got plenty of steals and pushed the ball in transition.”
The Vaqueros were also able to slice through the Chicago State defense and finish around the rim. Those close looks allowed the team as a whole to shoot an efficient 47.7% from the field.
“I love it, I love it, I love it,” Hill said. “We had 24 assists, so that means we had a lot of people making plays. The problem is — and I challenge these guys, especially the guards —when we don’t get 15-20 assists we lose because Javon (Levi) is the only one making plays. All the other guards have got to make plays as well and it’s not just scoring, you’ve got to make plays for your teammates.”
UTRGV led by as much as 31 in the second half and spread the wealth offensively. Varner notched a game-high 21 points and eight rebounds, while Jackson chipped in 18 points and four steals and junior point guard Javon Levi racked up six points and 10 assists.
The victory was the Vaqueros’ biggest over a Division I opponent this season and boosts their conference record to 2-1 on the year, putting them squarely in the hunt for a regular season WAC title run.
“Going forward, the conference is all over the place right now, so we’re just trying to find our place right now,” Jackson said. “Hopefully we’ll get to that No. 1 spot.”
The Vaqueros will return to the court to embark on a two-game road trip that will feature games against Seattle U at 9 p.m. Thursday and Utah Valley at 3 p.m. Saturday before their next home game against New Mexico State at 7 p.m. on Jan. 25.