EDINBURG — Vaqueros forward Sean Rhea hasn’t been at UTRGV for long, but he’s already made himself right at home.

After a turbulent start to his collegiate career, Rhea has started his redshirt junior season on a tear for the Vaqueros, who will look to cement their status as the top NCAA DI men’s basketball team in South Texas this season when they face the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders today as part of the South Texas Showdown rivalry series.

It’s a big opportunity for Rhea, UTRGV’s leader in the low post, to notch a marquee nonconference win against the Islanders, the team with which he began his collegiate playing career.

“Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — that’s my old school. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Rhea said after the Vaqueros’ 81-64 win over UTSA in their home opener. “I’ve waited three years to get at them and it’s a plus that it’s at Bert Ogden. … I’m so excited for that Corpus game. As soon as I stepped off the floor, that’s the end of this game. It was a good team win and it is what it, but we’re on to the next one, and I’m happy the next one is Corpus.”

Rhea, a Houston product, ended his senior year of high school as one of the top players in the area after securing district MVP honors and averaging 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game at Porter High School in New Caney. He was also a two-time First Team All-District and All-County selection at Porter.

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

The physical power forward chose Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and started 27 games for Islanders as a freshman averaging 9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on 50% shooting, before transferring to New Mexico Junior College to play alongside his twin brother, Deion, there.

A season-ending injury derailed Rhea’s sophomore year in New Mexico, however, and forced him to use a redshirt before transferring to UTRGV midway through the 2019-20 season.

Rhea stringed together enough consistent performance to break into UTRGV’s starting five before the end of his first season in the Rio Grande Valley.

This year, though, has been a different story.

He has established himself as an integral part of UTRGV’s frontcourt and a tone-setter for the team on the defensive end of the floor. Rhea has also helped the Vaqueros win nine of their last 12 games dating back to last season.

Rhea dominated in the Vaqueros’ home opener Saturday against the UTSA Roadrunners by scoring a career- and game-high 20 points, while also leading the team with six rebounds and two blocks. The redshirt junior even knocked down a contested corner 3-pointer.

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

“We were taking good shots, Coach (Hill) harps on that, and we were playing together and playing for each other. And then we also got out in transition,” Rhea said of the Vaqueros’ 81-point outburst Saturday against UTSA. “In our first game, we only scored 55 points and we were disappointed in ourselves. We were disappointed that we didn’t show everybody (in that game) that we’re UTRGV and this is how we like to play.”

“As a guard, that’s perfect,” UTRGV senior point guard Javon Levi said of Rhea after Saturday’s win. “That’s what we want, a big man that can open it up for us more and we can open it up for them more, too. (Saturday), Sean was amazing. He may have surprised y’all, but not us. We’ve been seeing him killing it in practice all year.”

Rhea’s emergence as a big-time playmaker couldn’t have come at a better time for UTRGV, which has needed his physicality and production down low, while center Jeff Otchere and forward Marek Nelson are sidelined with injuries to start the regular season.

He’s also a big reason why opponents have struggled to score consistently on the Vaqueros in the paint and why the team has won the offensive rebounding battle in each of its first two games.

“We came back and responded against UTSA and really got at them defensively,” Hill said. “We held their two leading scorers to 10 and six, which was the leading returning backcourt (by points per game) in the country and the leading (individual) returning scorer in the country, so I thought we did a great job of following the game plan.”

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Sean Rhea (1) celebrates a drive with teammate Uche Dibiamaka (15) against UTSA in an intra-state matchup at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“For me, personally, I only had two rebounds against Texas, so I wanted to go in and rebound as many as I could,” Rhea said. “All the guards did a good job of coming down and helping us rebound. We want to make it really physical and tough on the other team. We want to make it like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to play the Vaqueros, we don’t want to go through that for 40 minutes.’”

UTRGV (1-1, 0-0 WAC) will look to move above .500 for the first time this season when they face the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders (1-2, 0-0 Southland) in the first of two South Texas Showdown rivalry series games this season at 7 p.m. tonight at Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg.

The Islanders enter after notching a season-opening win over Texas A&M-International and falling in back-to-back games to Texas State and SMU.

“We’re playing for this school and these fans,” Rhea said. “So fans or no fans, we’re going to come out and give it everything we’ve got every night.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch