EDINBURG — The UTRGV Vaqueros men’s basketball team waited nearly nine months to make their competitive return to the hardwood on their home court.

UTRGV culminated its long-awaited journey back to regular-season competition with a marquee nonconference game against the UTSA Roadrunners in a matchup between two of the top NCAA DI men’s basketball programs across South Texas.

In a contest that featured no fans and a skeleton crew of game-day personnel due to health and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vaqueros made the most of their opportunities early.

UTRGV raced out to an early advantage but battled back and forth with UTSA in a bruising, physical game to pull away for a commanding 81-59 victory in the team’s home opener Saturday afternoon at UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“That was Vaquero basketball right there,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “This is us. We’re going to get after you, get into you, turn you over, make you shoot and make you uncomfortable all game long. Whatever you do every day, you’re not going to be able to do it against us, so you have to find different ways to beat us and that’s what we want to try to do to teams.”

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley forward Malik Lawrence-Anderson (24) attempts to block the shot of UTSA’s Eric Parrish (20) at the basket in an intra-state matchup at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“It was just a flat-out team effort today and it just felt really good to be a part of it out there on the floor and see everybody get their moments whether it was to score, assist, rebound or throw down blocks. It was just a great team effort,” senior point guard Javon Levi said. “This is what we imagine our team being. We have plenty of people who can score as you’ve seen so it’s just any given night, five people may be in double figures or one person might just be having a great night. You never know with this team. It was just a great win as a whole.”

The win marked a solid rebound performance for the Vaqueros, who moved to 1-1 on the season after a season-opening loss against the 19th-ranked Texas Longhorns on Wednesday in Austin. It also dropped UTSA to 1-1 on the year so far, after the Roadrunners topped UTPB but were unable to travel to play against the Oklahoma Sooners earlier in the week.

The matchup carried a special significance for Hill too, as he went head-to-head against one of his longtime coaching colleagues in UTSA’s Steve Henson. The duo coached together as assistants on Lon Kruger’s coaching staff at UNLV and Oklahoma.

But in a game defined by dominant defense in the early going, Levi, the two-time defending Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and redshirt junior forward Sean Rhea set a physical tone from the opening tip.

The Roadrunners paid for every trip into the paint defensively, as Rhea led an aggressive UTRGV frontcourt on both ends of the floor and helped his team out greatly in the rebounding battle.

Rhea ended the night with a game-high 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley forward Sean Rhea (1) eyes the basket during a drive in the paint against UTSA in an intra-state matchup at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“He brought us physicality. He did his job,” Hill said. “Everybody’s got a job to do, and he did his job and was great inside. He even hit a 3 today, which I told him he could shoot if his feet are set and he’s open, but he did what he was supposed to do. … What a great game for him. I’m very happy for him.”

“Tonight, Sean was amazing,” Levi said. “He might have surprised y’all, but not us. He’s been killing it in practice, so that’s what we expected and we’ll play through him in any game.”

The biggest difference between this performance for the Vaqueros and their season-opening loss to the Longhorns, though, came from behind the 3-point arc.

UTRGV stifled a talented UTSA team from deep, limiting the Roadrunners to 4-of-20 shooting on their 3-pointers. That also helped the Vaqueros collect a 39-34 edge in the battle on the boards and gradually gain some separation from the Roadrunners.

“Our depth and our pressure (are what helped us break away),” Hill said. “We kept putting that pressure on them all game and subbing and keeping fresh guys in. It just wore them down.”

“Constant pressure, no matter whether it looked like they were about to start scoring or were in the middle of a run already,” Levi said. “We just kept coming at them and kept coming at them. We’ve got multiple bodies we can throw at them and we turned our defensive pressure up this game, especially after last game, and kept it there throughout the whole game and I think it took a toll on them.”

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley guard Javon Levi (14) drives to the basket against UTSA in an intra-state matchup at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

UTSA closed the first half on a 9-2 run to cut UTRGV’s lead to 34-29 at halftime, but a second-half 3-point barrage helped the Vaqueros break away.

Junior guard Uche Dibiamaka (100%) and sophomore forward Quinton Johnson II (33.3%) led the way with a trio of 3-pointers each to lead UTRGV to a scorching-hot 10-of-23 shooting night from behind the perimeter.

The team shot 58.3% from deep during the second half and never gave the lead back, as six Vaqueros sunk 3-pointers in a drastic improvement from their Wednesday game at Texas.

“When we move the ball and get wide-open shots, we can knock them down like we did tonight,” Levi said. “We found a lot of open shots, ran the offense, spread the ball and hit those open shots when the ball was thrown to us.”

Rhea led the way offensively for UTRGV while Levi added 12 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals, and Dibiamaka and Johnson combined for another 28 points. Guard Jordan Ivey-Curry led UTSA in scoring with 12 points.

“He was fantastic,” Hill said of Dibiamaka. “Every one of our players contributes, even the ones that didn’t play today because they contribute in practice to get these guys prepared for this. I thought it was a great team win and effort.”

The Vaqueros will return to action and look to move above .500, when they host the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the first of two home games this season against the Islanders as part of the South Texas Showdown rivalry series with a 7 p.m. start Wednesday at Bert Ogden Arena, the home of the NBA G League’s RGV Vipers.

“I’m really excited to play at Bert Ogden Arena because it’s a pro arena and we all aspire to play pro one day,” Levi said. “But just being able to be out there together and compete on that floor, it’ll be fun.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch