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.”
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.”