UTSA forward Nick Allen hits a jumper off the baseline late in the game, courtesy of a drive into the paint and a slick pass from point guard Giovanni De Nicolao.
The UTSA Roadunners on Saturday soared to their third straight victory over a top-tier team in Conference USA, taking down the second-place Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 74-63, in front of 1,305 fans at the Convocation Center.
Freshman Jhivvan Jackson scored 22 points to lead the Roadrunners.
UTSA (13-11, 6-5) held Western Kentucky (16-7, 8-2) to 36.1 percent shooting, the worst shooting effort of the year for the Hilltoppers, who had won nine of their last 10.
Only nine days ago, the Roadrunners were blown out 75-51 on the road at first-place Middle Tennessee. It was their fourth loss in five games.
But since then, UTSA notched a victory at Alabama-Birmingham and followed at home this week with wins against Marshall and Western Kentucky.
Those teams are the fourth-, fifth- and second-place teams in the conference, respectively.
To view the upset in another context, Western Kentucky was 46th in the Ratings Percentage Index leading into the game. UTSA was 214th.
“Just shows that we can compete with anyone in this league,” Roadrunners forward Byron Frohnen said.
UTSA forward Byron Frohnen hits a follow shot off a miss from Toby Van Ry in the first half. Frohnen and Keaton Wallace led a UTSA rebounding onslaught with eight boards apiece.
Jackson scored 15 points and UTSA held Western Kentucky to 22.6 percent shooting in taking a 37-25 lead on the Hilltoppers at halftime.
In one of their best halves of the season, the Roadrunners alternated between man and zone defenses and limited the visitors to 7 of 31 shooting from the field.
Western Kentucky entered the game shooting 49.4 percent from the field in 22 games and 48.5 percent in nine conference games.
Emblematic of UTSA’s defensive prowess, Van Ry and guard George Willborn III (35) combine forces to protect the front of the rim on a Western Kentucky possession early in the first half.
Celebrating a victory
After the game, the worst kept secret of the day was confirmed, that UTSA players celebrated in the dressing room and that coach Steve Henson got right in the middle of it.
“Yeah, we had a little celebration,” Frohnen said. “It’s always good to get a big win, especially against one of the best teams in the conference. That just shows that we can compete with anyone in this league.”
From the outset, the Roadrunners just seemed to bring more energy than the Hilltoppers.
“We came out to play and they came out kind of asleep, to be honest,” Frohnen said. “So, definitely, getting on their backs right out of the gate was huge momentum for us.”
In 2015-16, the UTSA program had hit bottom with a 5-27 record, leading to the dismissal of the coaching staff and the hiring of Henson.
In the coach’s first year, the team was better, finishing 14-19 and 8-10 in the conference.
UTSA even won a game at the C-USA tournament, downing Western Kentucky before getting ousted by Middle Tennessee in the quarterfinals.
But over the last few weeks, it feels as if the entire program has executed another positive step forward.
“Our guys have practiced so well for three weeks in a row,” Henson said. “To see the progress and get the results, because of the practices, is what you want.
“The guys are figuring some things out. I think we’re getting better, which is very important at this point of the season, especially with young guys.
“You know, freshmen are sometimes hitting the wall. I don’t think our freshmen are doing that. They’re getting better every day. We’re in a good spot right now.”
UTSA freshman Jhivvan takes off on the dribble and passes to Deon Lyle for a layup in the first half.
Freshmen on the rise
Jackson and Wallace, arguably two of the best freshmen in school history, are both hitting their stride.
Jackson has scored 24, 23 and 22 points in his last three games, respectively.
Wallace had a career-high with 11 assists at UAB, and he has followed with double figures in scoring in each of the past two games.
Against Western Kentucky, he produced 11 points, a career-high eight rebounds, four assists and a steal.
UTSA freshman Jhivvan Jackson is greeted with a hug from athletic director Lisa Campos after an 81-77 home victory Thursday over Marshall.
UTSA will have a fourth-straight opportunity to knock off an upper-echelon team in Conference USA with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in town for a 3 p.m. game Saturday at the Convocation Center.
Already, UTSA has won two of three in perhaps the toughest two-week stretch of its schedule.
Last week, the Roadrunners traveled to Middle Tennessee and got hammered, 75-51, by the C-USA’s first-place team.
Two nights later, they played perhaps their best game of the season in an 82-70 victory at Alabama-Birmingham.
The Roadrunners followed it up with an 81-77 victory Thursday night over the Marshall Thundering Herd, improving to 12-11 overall and 5-5 in conference.
“It just tells us we can come out here and beat anybody,” said UTSA freshman guard Jhivvan Jackson, the Roadrunners’ leading scorer.
UTSA coach Steve Henson said second-place Western Kentucky (16-6, 8-1) will be a different challenge than the Herd, who rely on a perimeter shooting attack.
Defending the Hilltoppers will be “a different deal altogether,” he said. “It’ll be a totally different feel. (With) two big guys, they’ll pound that ball inside and be physical.”
Western Kentucky has a balanced attack with two guards and two forwards all averaging in double figures.
But Henson knows UTSA will need to be prepared for the Hilltoppers’ big men, namely Justin Johnson (6-7, 245 pounds) and Kansas transfer Dwight Coleby (6-9, 245).
Defending the post
“Tonight we didn’t have to guard one post up,” Henson said Thursday night. “I take that back. (Marshall guard C.J.) Burks, (on the) first play, posted Jhivvan. But after that, there were no more post ups.
“Saturday there will be post up after post up (with) two of the biggest, strongest guys in the league down their working. They’re good. They’re effective.
“We’ll have to have a little different game plan.”
The Hilltoppers have won nine of their last 10 after beating UTEP on the road Thursday night.
Against the Roadrunners, the Hilltoppers are looking for their sixth straight road win and their fifth straight in C-USA.
But in UTSA, Western Kentucky will encounter a team that is playing much better than it had been only a few weeks ago on the tail end of a 1-4 skid.
The Roadrunners’ home losses to North Texas, Florida International and Florida Atlantic, Henson said, were “very concerning.”
“Last week’s road trip, on paper, was the toughest in the league,” Henson said. “(Middle Tennessee and UAB) those are two good teams.
“The two teams we got in here this week are good teams — top level.
“So, to get a win at UAB was fantastic. To protect home court against another top team (Marshall), those are terrific wins at this point in the season.”
Revamping its style
UTSA has revamped its style in a number of ways since the losing streak, primarily with a change in roles for the dynamic freshman duo of Jackson and Keaton Wallace.
Jackson, who played off the bench through the loss to Florida Atlantic, has started the last four games.
Wallace, a starter through the FAU loss, has been coming off the bench in the last four.
In the wake of the switch, Jackson continues to play at a high level.
He has led UTSA in scoring with 24 points at UAB and with 23 against Marshall.
Wallace has also been effective, passing for a team season-high of 11 assists at UAB.
He sparked the UTSA bench against Marshall with 12 points and five rebounds.
Point guard Giovanni De Nicolao hit four three-point shots in the win at UAB and then followed with another solid outing against Marshall, supplying clutch plays down the stretch.
On paper, it’s a modest win streak.
But two in a row against UAB and Marshall after the earlier struggles is a positive sign for the future.
“(It’s) a real credit to our guys,” Henson said. “You know, the home losses against mid-level teams didn’t discourage us. Didn’t set us back any. We just kept getting better.”
UTSA’s Keaton Wallace shakes a defender to hit an 18-footer on Jan. 20 against UTEP.
UTSA freshman Keaton Wallace says he knows what to expect from the Marshall Thundering Herd.
“They like to play fast,” Wallace said. “They shoot a lot of threes, throw a lot of lobs.”
On the flip side, the Marshall coaching staff might not know exactly what to expect from Wallace and the Roadrunners when they meet tonight at 7 at the Convocation Center.
Is UTSA still the team that rushes the ball up the court and then allows one of its freshmen sharpshooters – Wallace and Jhivvan Jackson — to fire away from long distance?
Or, has UTSA’s fun-and-gun offense now been modified?
It’s hard to tell, after Wallace passed for a team season-high of 11 assists last Saturday in an eye-opening, 82-70 victory at Alabama-Birmingham.
As a team, the Roadrunners probably have never looked better in recent years than they did at UAB, when a crisp offense notched 24 assists on 32 field goals.
Wallace said it’s definitely the way he’d like to see the team play as it battles through the last month of the Conference USA schedule.
“That’s Roadrunner basketball,” Wallace said. “Moving the ball. Making open shots. Making plays for other teammates. Getting them open.”
But with powerful Marshall and Western Kentucky coming into San Antonio this week, can the Roadrunners keep it going?
“I feel like we’re locked in,” Wallace said. “We’re ready to play. I feel like we’re doing better things. We’re improving. We’re making better reads on offense and playing harder on defense, making the job easier for us.”
It’s certainly making the job easier for UTSA coach Steve Henson, who had been sweating a string of poor performances, particularly some poor offensive performances.
UTSA never looked worse this season than it did last Thursday in a 75-51 loss at Middle Tennessee State.
The Conference USA-leading Blue Raiders toyed with the Roadrunners, holding them to 34 percent shooting.
On the UTSA bench, Henson watched with some anxiety at the poor shot selection. So much so, that he spent all day last Friday trying to figure it out.
“You know, we kind of got tricked earlier in the year,” the coach said. “We had so many guys feeling good early, had so many guys shooting it well. You know, we just had easy shots.
“As the season went on, certain guys (weren’t) shooting it as well now as we were earlier, which affects everybody else.
“Defenses were getting better. Scouting reports were more specific. And we just (weren’t) running good offense.”
Shooting only 30.2 percent from the field in C-USA play, Wallace took the message to heart.
He emerged at UAB as a player intent on finding shots for his teammates.
In the first half alone, he passed for five assists, with four of them leading to three-point baskets.
How effective was he?
When Wallace entered the game, the Roadrunners led 4-1. When Henson took him out near the end of the half, they were up 37-22.
In the second half, the former backcourt standout at Richardson High School notched six more assists, with four resulting in layups.
As the team boarded the bus, they packed a few statistical oddities.
Giovanni De Nicolao, UTSA’s starting point guard and most consistent playmaker, had hit four three-pointers.
Wallace had only four points, but he had the most assists he’s ever had in a game in his life.
“Like I said, coach emphasized that we got to drive the ball more,” he said. “In previous games I’d been taking a lot of threes. So, he emphasized (that). He believes that I can drive the ball, that there’s more to my game than just shooting.
“I was driving it (against the Blazers), making the defense collapse and kicking it to my teammates. They were knocking down shots. So, credit to them.”
Wallace’s smooth shooting stroke from November and December still hasn’t re-emerged. He was only 2 for 7 against UAB. He took only one three pointer and missed it.
Henson, however, has hardly lost confidence in him.
The coach is staying with a player who has proven he can make a positive impact, one way or the other.
“When he locks in on trying to make shots for others, that helps him,” Henson said after Tuesday’s workout at UTSA. “He’s not going to lose his shooting ability. It’ll be big time when he gets all that stuff packaged together.
“Yeah, he’s got the ability to do what he did (at Birmingham). He did it today (in practice). He was really aggressive driving it.”
Wallace said, in a sense, the shooting slump has had its benefits in that it has sparked him in trying to improve in other phases.
“It forces you to adjust,” he said. “It forces me to think different. It forces me to do different things on the court.
“As far as not scoring as many points as I did before, now I have to think about getting a few more assists, a few more rebounds, so we can win those games.”
So, as his game evolves and the team faces a critical phase of its schedule, does he now consider himself more of a pass-first guard?
“Um, no,” Wallace said. “I wouldn’t say more of a pass-first guard. I would just say, making plays. A play-making guard.”
Freshman Keaton Wallace buries a three on Dec. 31 against North Texas.
Young has now produced a Big 12 record of four games of 40 points in a season. Here’s a breakdown:
Nov. 26, 2017
Final score: Oklahoma 90, Oregon 80
Where: Portland, Oregon
Minutes played: 37
Field goals: 11-22
Three pointers: 4-11
Free throws: 17-18 Notable: Young scored the most points for a Sooner since Buddy Hield had 46 in then No. 1 Oklahoma’s 109-106 loss to No. 2 Kansas in triple overtime on Jan. 4, 2016, according to the Associated Press. Quotable: “I found my teammates and found some for myself,” Young said. “My teammates did a great job of knocking down shots and that opened up the floor for me.”
Dec. 30, 2017
Final score: Oklahoma 102, TCU 97 in overtime
Where: Norman, Oklahoma
Minutes played: 40
Field goals: 15-27
Three pointers: 10-18
Free throws: 3-7 Notable: Young scored 29 after halftime. It was Young’s second dominating performance against TCU this season. He had 39 in Fort Worth on Dec. 30. Quotable: “Sometimes you wonder, is he even human?” asked Oklahoma guard Christian James.
Jan. 20, 2018
Final score: Oklahoma State 83, Oklahoma 81 in overtime
Where: Stillwater, Oklahoma
Minutes played: 43
Field goals: 14-39
Three pointers: 8-20
Free throws: 12-12 Notable: Young missed a long three at the overtime buzzer. None of Young’s teammates scored more than eight points. Quotable: “We’ve got to work harder on getting more motion away from the ball and get the ball moving a little bit,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
Jan 30, 2018
Final score: Oklahoma 98, Baylor 96
Where: Norman, Oklahoma
Minutes played: 38
Field goals: 11-20
Three pointers: 6-11
Free throws: 16-19 Notable: The next stop for Young and the Sooners is Austin. OU plays at Texas on Saturday. Quotable: “Trae Young is a special player,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “His 3-point shot is obviously elite. What we tried to do was not get him on the free-throw line. As you can see, we weren’t effective there.”