EDINBURG — The UTRGV Vaqueros were originally supposed to play their seventh game of the 2020-21 college basketball season Monday night at Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

But in another strange twist in an unpredictable season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vaqueros instead hosted Texas A&M-International — an NCAA Division II school in Laredo — for their third home game of the season without fans and their second straight contest without starting point guard Javon Levi, who did not dress due to a pre-existing injury.

But UTRGV made the most of its chances early, as the Vaqueros played lockdown defense from the opening jump and got everyone involved offensively in an 89-51 route of the Dustdevils on Monday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“I’m really excited and thrilled with how our team played tonight,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “I told them there were two ways you could take this game tonight: You could take them for granted or you can come out and get better. We did the latter and got better tonight.”

Monday’s performance was also a marked improvement from last season, when the Vaqueros beat the Dustdevils 79-52 in Edinburg, particularly on the defensive end.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley coaches and team watch the action on the court with no fans present due to COVID-19 concerns during a nonconference game Texas A&M International at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

UTRGV blitzed Texas A&M-International’s ball handlers all night as they brought the ball up court and limited the visiting team to 2-of-15 shooting through the first 9 minutes of game time. The Dustdevils ended the first half shooting a measly 18.8% from the floor and 11.1% on 3-pointers.

A physical first half defensively, though, gave Texas A&M-International enough trips to the free-throw line to avoid being blown out in the opening 20 minutes, but it wasn’t enough.

UTRGV ultimately forced 19 turnovers on the night and outscored the Dustdevils 28-0 in points off turnovers as a team. Texas A&M-International finished the game shooting 16 of 62 from the floor and three of 18 from deep.

“We were playing really good defense tonight and that’s an important part of our game,” redshirt junior power forward Sean Rhea said. “We’re going to defend you whether your shots are going in or not. We’re going to try to play tough on them every game. I think our guards did a good job of not letting them go middle and playing real physical.”

“We wanted to make sure they could prove they could hit their shots first and then when they tried to attack the paint, they’re a really good one-on-one team, so we wanted to take that away from them and be as tough as possible.”

The Vaqueros, however, were able to showcase their depth offensively throughout the second half. UTRGV tallied 20 assists and 42 bench points on the night, which were both season highs for the team.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley guard Quinton Johnson II (2) attempts a basket against Texas A&M International during a nonconference game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Of 13 players who checked into the game for UTRGV, 11 scored, led by Rhea’s game-high 19 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore forwards Quinton Johnson II and Connor Raines combined for another 30 points for the Vaqueros.

“Coach (Hill) definitely emphasized moving the ball a lot,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have Javon Levi in this game, but he usually gets the ball moving around a lot for us. He’s a big piece missing, so we’ve just got to find other ways to get the ball moving and think about the extra pass.”

The victory marks the Vaqueros third lopsided victory in front of a mostly empty home gym with fans not allowed to attend. UTRGV has outscored its opponents in those games by an average of 26.0 points per game.

“We’ve always got to protect home court and this year I think we’ve done a really good job of locking it down. Whether there are fans or no fans, we’re still going to come. The ‘V’ on that court is our ‘V,’ so we don’t want to let anyone come in and get anything easily on our court.”

“It’s been a little different,” Johnson said. “I would love for our fans to be here and I miss our fans, but I feel like to be a good basketball team, you’ve got to do it when nobody’s around so this is really just testing our character.”

UTRGV improves to 5-2 on the season with the win and will return to action to host the Sam Houston State Bearkats (3-4) at 6 p.m. Dec. 21 at UTRGV Fieldhouse. The Vaqueros defeated the Bearkats 90-86 in a double-overtime game last December in Edinburg.

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch