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.”
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) January 28, 2018
Western Kentucky guard Josh Anderson throws down a monster dunk during a Jan. 27 home game against Marshall.