Texas-Rio Grande Valley's Jeff Otchere(4) pulls down a rebound from St. Mary's Tyler Caron (15) and Dylan Isenhower (21)during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Edinburg, Texas ,Thursday ,Jan.07,2021. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

EDINBURG — Jeff Otchere waited months to make his UTRGV basketball debut, but it only took the graduate transfer center a handful of minutes to make his presence felt on the court.

Otchere — who was named the America East Defensive Player of the Year during his time at Stony Brook — tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and a game-high 4 blocks in his first game wearing a Vaqueros uniform, as UTRGV blasted St. Mary’s University in a 96-67 rout in the team’s first game of 2021 and its most complete performance of the season Thursday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.

“It felt good (to be back on the court). Basketball kind of felt like a memory until I started practicing again two weeks ago,” said Otchere, who was sidelined with a knee injury for the Vaqueros’ first month of the 2020-21 season. “Getting on the court just reminded me of what it felt like. I feel like I adapted very quickly as soon as I got my second wind.”

Otchere set the tone for UTRGV’s defense down low, a unit that prides itself on its physicality and relentless full-court pressure, and helped the Vaqueros win the battle on the boards in convincing fashion.

He and the Vaqueros outrebounded the visiting Rattlers by 16, which helped UTRGV dominate in the paint on both ends of the floor and fuel the team’s up-tempo attack in transition.

“(Otchere) brought us physicality,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “He’s a shot blocker. He’s just got to work on getting his timing back, but for his first time back out there he did a good job.”

Texas-Rio Grande Valley’s Chris Freeman (0) on a drive to the basket while defended by St. Mary’s Tyler Caron (15) and Dylan Isenhower during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Edinburg, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

On a night headlined by Otchere’s debut, though, the Vaqueros flexed their depth in their highest-scoring game of the season.

UTRGV shot 56.1% from the floor as a team and 52.6% from deep, while tallying 24 assists as a group, all of which were season highs.

Ten Vaqueros converted on multiple field-goal attempts and four reached double figures led by junior guard Laquon Butler’s career-high 20 points on 72.7% shooting. Butler entered halftime shooting 5-for-5 from the floor.

“I was just taking the shots that came to me,” Butler said. “I wasn’t forcing anything and just let my teammates set me up. We’ve been working on that all week in practice, just trying to take simple shots.”

Redshirt junior power forward Sean Rhea added to UTRGV’s scoring barrage and kept up his impressive scoring streak, adding 13 points and a team-high six rebounds. Juniors Marek Nelson and Uche Dibiamaka also played key roles for the Vaqueros offensively finishing with 12 and 11 points, respectively.

Texas-Rio Grande Valley’s Sean Rhea (1) shoots past St. Mary’s Norman Beckford (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Edinburg, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

UTRGV led by as many as 35 during the second half in a performance that highlighted the team’s depth from top to bottom. The Vaqueros bench (49) outscored the team’s starting five (47) for the first time this season as well.

“We definitely picked it up,” Butler said. “We wanted and needed to do something different after that Sam Houston loss. In practice this week we’ve been putting a big emphasis on moving the ball and creating better shots. Tonight, it worked out in our favor.”

“I love the way we shared the ball and I love the way we rebounded. I love the way we shot it (too). We played a really good game,” Hill said. “We’ve really been working on our skill work and our shooting and it showed tonight. … Now we’ve got to carry that over.”

With the victory, UTRGV improves to 6-3 on the season, marking the best start for the program since the 2004-05 season. Since a season-opening loss at No. 4 Texas, the Vaqueros have outscored their nonconference competition by 101 points in their last eight games and currently own the best winning percentage of any team in the Western Athletic Conference.

UTRGV returns to action to kick off its conference schedule with back-to-back home games against WAC newcomer Dixie State on Jan. 15 and 16 at UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg. Both games, the first two WAC games for Dixie State in program history, are set to tipoff at 6 p.m.

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch