— UTSA Basketball (@UTSAMBB) December 29, 2017
Most UTSA students have left campus for a holiday break between the fall and spring semesters.
In that regard, it rated as a mild surprise Thursday night to see a season-high crowd of 1,163 fans turn out for the men’s basketball team’s Conference USA opener against the Rice Owls.
What wasn’t surprising was that the Roadrunners played well again. That is getting to be a trend, especially at home, under second-year coach Steve Henson.
After UTSA beat Rice 79-66 and improved to 8-6 on the season, including 6-0 in the Convocation Center, the coach didn’t try to stamp out speculation that he is feeling a certain “mojo” working in his favor.
“I hope so,” Henson said, smiling. “I hope so. You know, we won a lot of ball games in here last year. Winning percentage is good. Our guys play with a lot of confidence at home.”
UTSA is now 17-3 at home under Henson since he took over in 2016.
“You walk out and see the band, hear the band, then see a good crowd and it gives us more energy,” the coach said. “I know our guys appreciate it, and I appreciate it.”
Fans are starting to appreciate the home team, as well. UTSA handled slumping Rice (3-11) with relative ease.
As the Roadrunners held the Owls to 39.2 percent shooting from the field, they also produced a balanced offense, with 11 players scoring.
Freshman guard Jhivvan Jackson led the way with 20 points.
For the fifth straight game, UTSA hit 10 or more 3-pointers. The Roadrunners sank 12 of them, including five by Jackson.
“It’s a fun team to watch,” Henson said. “People that haven’t seen it yet need to come check it out, because we’re going to play as fast as we can. Our guys are going to shoot threes.
“Our guys are going to play very, very free. We won’t play anybody all year that our game plan is to slow it down. That’s new to me in some regards. But we got the people to do it.
“We’re going to play fast. We’re going to shoot threes. I think we’re a fun team to watch.”
UTSA broke open a close game with a 17-3 outburst over a five-minute span early in the second half.
By the time the dust settled, Rice was down 21. The Owls, under first-year coach Scott Pera, never really recovered.
Only a hail of 3-pointers by the Owls in the last few minutes allowed the game to get as close as it did.
Jackson said UTSA needs to build on the defensive performance leading into Saturday’s home game against North Texas.
“We got to get better on the boards,” he said. “We just got to keep working on defense, like we did today, and grab rebounds.”
Employing a zone defense throughout, Rice succeeded in slowing down UTSA at times.
But the Roadrunners, averaging 87 points coming in, were never really fazed.
“They definitely slowed us in the first half, in the beginning, a little bit,” Jackson said.
“(They slowed us) until we got the groove and we started moving the ball, making extra passes.
“Then, after that, we just kept making the right plays.”
Roosevelt Smart scored 29 points Thursday night as North Texas won its C-USA opener at UTEP, 63-62.
Smart hit 9 of 13 from the field for North Texas (8-6), while UTEP (5-8) was led by Keith Frazier with 13 points.
UTSA point guard Giovanni De Nicolao drives to the bucket Thursday night in the first half against Rice. Video: thejbreplay.com