EDINBURG — Senior point guard Javon Levi and redshirt junior power forward Sean Rhea each entered UTRGV’s game against regional rival Texas A&M-Corpus Christi with something to prove.
For Rhea, it was the beginning of a new chapter after a long journey pitted him against the Islanders, the team with which he began his collegiate basketball career.
For Levi, the game was about showing the college basketball world that the Vaqueros’ two-time defending Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year was back with a full head of steam after an injury prevented him from training during most of the COVID-19 pandemic and offseason.
Levi and Rhea didn’t hold back, though, as UTRGV’s dynamic duo combined for 37 points and led the Vaqueros past Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 62-59 in a Wednesday night thriller at Bert Ogden Arena in the first of two South Texas Showdown games against the Islanders this year.
“Overall, this was a pretty tough game,” Levi said. “When we get a lead, we expect to maintain it even when they get on a run and be able to answer the run like we did tonight. In past years, they would not only come back but take the lead, so I think we did (well) as far as answering tonight.”
“I was playing my former team so emotions were running high,” said Rhea, the Vaqueros’ tone-setter down low. “I feel like I did a bad job of letting that get the best of toward the end, but I wanted to win this game really badly. It’s good I can have a good game, but ultimately getting a win over my old team means a lot.”
The Vaqueros (2-1, 0-0 WAC) got off to a slow start, needing 2 minutes to sink their first basket of the game, but they never looked back afterward, holding onto the lead from that point onward.
UTRGV plowed ahead and scored 24 of the game’s next 32 points to seize a 14-point advantage, the largest for either team all night.
The Islanders (1-2, 0-0 Southland) managed to trim the Vaqueros’ lead to 24-15 by halftime after a physical and defensive opening 20 minutes of play.
“We came out and had about four lockdowns, and we were rebounding and getting out in transition,” Levi said. “That set the tone. When you come out and get lockdowns, which is three stops in a row, you really set the tone. It had them down and it took away their calmness, although we let them get it back a little bit.
“When you come out and get lockdowns and run and rebound like that, it takes the life out of people. Once we can get out in transition, we’re pumped up to play even more defense.”
The Vaqueros tallied 17 transition points, but trouble found UTRGV in the second half after several timely 3-pointers helped the Islanders claw back into the contest. An 8-0 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi run cut the Vaqueros’ lead to one and a transition corner 3-pointer helped the Islanders knot it up at 52 with 3:30 to go in regulation.
That’s when Levi and Rhea elevated their games.
Levi played his most spirited game of the season and appeared to be on track for a triple-double with his play in the second half. UTRGV’s senior point guard dictated the tempo on both ends of the floor down the stretch, hit some vital free throws and consistently found his teammates for open looks.
Levi ended the night with 19 points, seven assists, six steals and six rebounds on 57.1% shooting in his top all-around performance of the season thus far.
“I think this was my best all-around performance in a while,” Levi said. “I’ve got to cut down on my turnovers, though, because five for a point guard is way too many. But besides that, this was a really good all-around game for me.”
Rhea was equally instrumental for UTRGV down the stretch, especially defensively.
The Vaqueros’ starting power forward sealed off the inside with his physical play in the paint and didn’t allow the Islanders to score down low or grab an offensive rebound during the final 3:30 of the game while he was on the floor.
“The guys did a good job on the outside of allowing no middle, which made it easy for me on the inside,” he said. “I gave up a lob in the second half early and they were telling me I didn’t have to help over, so we just let them try to make contested shots over our longer guards and wings. They did a good job walling up and making it tough on them inside.
“Perry (Francois) was posting me up real hard, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop him every time so I just tried to get a hand in his face every time and make him uncomfortable.”
Rhea also helped UTRGV win the battle on the offensive glass for the third time in as many games and was a big reason why the team shot a stellar 41.7% from the floor as a group.
He finished with a game-high 18 points, five rebounds and two blocks on 50% shooting. It’s his second straight game leading both sides in points after posting a career-high 20 against UTSA in the team’s last outing.
“The guys have just been doing a really good job creating space, driving the gaps and finding me down low,” Rhea said. “They were closing out a little hard tonight and the guys were doing a great job of pump faking and looking down there for me. They do a really good job of dropping it down there to me.”
“They were digging really hard trying to make me uncomfortable, so I tried to face up more in the second half so I could see the whole court and see where they were going to try double from.”
Francois led Texas A&M-Corpus Christi with 15 points, four rebounds and two blocks.
The Vaqueros will return to action when they host Our Lady of the Lake at 6 p.m. Friday at UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg. UTRGV will then travel to face the Texas A&M Aggies at 3 p.m. Sunday at Reed Arena in College Station.
The Islanders and Vaqueros will face off against one another again in the second leg of the South Texas Showdown at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, in Corpus Christi.
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