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.