UTSA to open Conference USA play Saturday at UAB

The UTSA Roadrunners have lost two straight, and their capabilities on offense once again have plunged into some uncertainty.

But, ready or not, they will open play in the Conference USA phase of their schedule Saturday on the road against one of the league favorites, the UAB Blazers.

After making some progress through early December, the Roadrunners have been hit with adversity.

The progress they made during a 3-1 streak was scuttled on Dec. 15 when they had to shut down two players, including their starting point guard, to Covid-19 protocols.

In the aftermath, playing without playmaker and second-leading scorer Jordan Ivy-Curry, they lost by 18 points at home to UT Rio Grande Valley. A road game followed at Illinois State, where they fell by 17.

Covid issues within opponents’ programs forced postponement of UTSA’s next two games.

Our Lady of the Lake pulled out of a Dec. 22 contest at the Convocation Center. Then, the Roadrunners learned Tuesday that their C-USA opener at Middle Tennessee State was also postponed.

As a result, the team re-arranged its itinerary and practiced at home through Wednesday of this week.

Originally scheduled to play on Thursday night in Tennessee, the Roadrunners used the off day to travel into Birmingham, to complete preparations for their game against the Blazers.

Coming up

Saturday, 2 p.m. — UTSA (6-6) at UAB (11-3, 1-0)

Notable

While UTSA is expected to have Ivy-Curry and reserve forward Aleu Aleu ready to play against the Blazers, they will be without reserve forward/center Phoenix Ford, who remained at home. He is in Covid protocols and is expected to miss the game against UAB and also a non-conference home game Monday against Dallas Christian.

Ford didn’t play at Illinois State as he prepared for the birth of his first child. Then, after his girlfriend gave birth, on Christmas Eve, he returned to practice for a few days, only to learn early this week that he would need to isolate, that he wouldn’t be able to play against the Blazers. UTSA coaches have communicated with Ford, and he says he’s feeling fine.

UAB, meanwhile, looked strong in its C-USA opener Thursday night. The Blazers shot 50 percent from the field and downed the UTEP Miners, 75-62, in Birmingham. After trailing early, UAB sprinted out on a 21-2 run, during which first-year UTEP coach Joe Golding was assessed two technical fouls and ejected. The Blazers finished the run up 29-12, and never allowed the Miners to get closer than 12 the rest of the way.

Quotable

“UAB is just really good,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said Friday in a telephone interview from Birmingham. “I don’t know why they shuffled their starting lineup against UTEP. But they are, statistically, one of the best defensive teams in the country.”

Keys to victory

UTSA’s chances against UAB will hinge, in a lot of ways, on whether it can get good enough shots against a team that likes to pressure the ball. The Roadrunners, in effect, will need to take good shots and make enough of them to put pressure on the heavily-favored home team.

Having Ivy-Curry and Aleu back in the rotation will help.

“Aleu clearly had his best practice of the year a few days ago,” Henson said. “On Tuesday or Wednesday, he made a couple of plays back to back to back that were as good as any we’ve had in a long time. Just flying around, he blocked a dunk on one end, had a big tip in on the other end. I was really, really happy with the way he played.

“Jordan, I didn’t think he was real sharp the first couple of practices after the break. But he was really good yesterday and today. Everybody (on the trip) was with us today. We had a good practice today over at the main arena. So, I liked the way we prepared.”

C-USA in the NET rankings

On New Year’s Eve, UTSA is ranked 329th out of 358 Division I men’s basketball programs and 14th out of 14 C-USA teams, according to the NCAA’s daily NET rankings.

Teams in the C-USA are ranked as such: UAB is 50th, followed by North Texas (69) and Louisiana Tech (79).

Teams ranked in the 100s include Middle Tennessee (120), Western Kentucky (135), Charlotte (153), Rice (174) and UTEP (197).

Teams in the 200s: Florida Atlantic (210), FIU (215), Marshall (217), Old Dominion (220).

In the 300s: Southern Miss (311) and UTSA (329).

The NET takes into account game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses, according to an explainer at ncaa.com.

UTSA’s conference opener at Middle Tennessee postponed

Middle Tennessee men’s basketball has announced that its Conference USA home games scheduled for this weekend against UTSA and UTEP have been postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests within the Blue Raiders’ program.

The Middle Tennessee – UTSA game was set for Thursday afternoon. Middle Tennessee – UTEP was scheduled for Saturday. Both games were set for the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro.

All Middle Tennessee players have been vaccinated, according to a news release on the school’s website.

C-USA will work to reschedule the games at later dates. The Blue Raiders’ next scheduled games are Jan. 6 at Rice and Jan. 8 at North Texas.

UTSA is scheduled to play Saturday, on the road in Alabama, against the UAB Blazers. The Roadrunners (6-6) and the Blazers (10-3) are set to tip off at 3 p.m.

With C-USA play looming, UTSA is set to get three players back

Starting point guard Jordan Ivy-Curry and reserve center Phoenix Ford are set to re-join team activities Sunday night, and reserve forward Aleu Aleu is expected to return on Monday as the UTSA Roadrunners prepare for the start of the Conference USA schedule later this week.

UTSA coach Steve Henson delivered the news in a telephone interview Sunday afternoon, saying, “We anticipate everyone being ready to go. Aleu has some Covid protocols to finish up (but) I anticipate having him tomorrow. Everyone else should be good to go tonight.”

The Roadrunners (6-6) are set to pay at Middle Tennessee State (9-4) on Thursday and at UAB (10-3) on Saturday. Both are afternoon games.

It’s been an up-and-down ride for the Roadrunners in the pre-conference phase of the schedule. Early on, they were blown out at Oklahoma and then were beaten at home by Division II Texas A&M-Commerce.

But just as they started to play better, winning five of seven in one stretch, Henson learned late in the evening on Dec. 15 that Ivy-Curry and Aleu had been placed in health and safety protocols, both of them dealing with issues related to Covid.

Both were unavailable for the team’s last two games, at home against UT Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 17 and on the road at Illinois State on Dec. 21, both losses. Ford also did not travel for the Illinois State game, as he was dealing with a personal matter.

But he, too, has returned after the birth of his first child on Christmas Eve, said Henson, who gave all of his players the last 3 and 1/2 days off for the holiday break.

After Sunday night’s workout, scheduled to consist of weights, an hour-or-so on the court and film study, the Roadrunners were set to get back into their normal routine starting Monday.

For Ivy-Curry and Aleu, the workouts will be important as they try to strengthen their legs and their bodies after 10 days in isolation.

“Oh, for sure,” Henson said. “That’s always the concern for the whole group (after) 3 and ½ days off. Those guys had a longer break. It’ll be a concern.

“Sometimes there (are) positives with that,” the coach added. “Guys are banged up and bruised up. For Aleu, that was not the case. He was just starting to come into his own and get back into good shape. He certainly didn’t need that kind of setback.

“With Juice, I don’t think it’ll be a big deal for him. I expect him to get right back in there. But the timing of it was unfortunate. There’s never good timing to be shut down in the middle of the season.”

Before the Covid issues hit, the Roadrunners had been on an upswing, winning three out of four, while gradually starting to work some of the kinks out of their offense.

But without Ivy-Curry on the floor, the progress stalled, with UTSA hitting only 25 percent from the field against UTRGV and 37.9 percent against Illinois State.

Teams around the country have been plagued with Covid-related problems, so Henson is trying to take the setback in stride.

“Just like you do, I see games getting canceled and postponed and rescheduled and all that,” Henson said. “Right and left, teams are dropping out. In the (football) bowl games. (Also) in that Christmas (basketball) tournament in Hawaii.

“Of four games to be played in Hawaii on Christmas Day, two of them were shut down, including the championship game. But, (the virus) is here, and everyone’s dealing with it.”

Coming up

Thursday — UTSA at Middle Tennessee State, 4 p.m.
Saturday — UTSA at UAB, 3 p.m.
Jan. 6 — Southern Miss at UTSA, 7 p.m.
Jan. 8 — Louisiana Tech at UTSA, 3 p.m.

Notable

Even at full strength, Henson knows that the Roadrunners will need to improve both offensively and defensively in order to finish in the upper half of the C-USA standings.

“It’s going to get tougher in league play,” he said. “We know that. Our league is really, really good. So we got to keep improving.

“We got to put those last two games behind us. Get back to the things we were focusing on going into the Grand Canyon game, (and in) the Sam Houston game … getting the ball moving more, taking quality shots.

“In the Sam Houston game, they forced us to go make plays, but we did. We liked the direction we were taking heading into those two games. We’ve got to recapture that. Build on that. We’ve got to get better this week. That’s the bottom line.”

Hot-shooting Illinois State rolls past UTSA, 81-64

Junior guard Antonio Reeves produced 21 points and 10 rebounds as the Illinois State Redbirds downed the short-handed UTSA Roadrunners, 81-64, Tuesday afternoon in Normal, Ill.

Missouri Valley Conference-based Illinois State shot 55 percent from the field, including 59 percent in the second half, to subdue UTSA.

The Redbirds led by 11 points at halftime and pumped the advantage to as many as 23 twice with about 10 minutes remaining.

Playing without three players, the Roadrunners stayed in the game for most of the first half before fading to their second straight loss.

In the end, they couldn’t keep pace with the Redbirds, falling to 0-2 without starting point guard Jordan Ivy-Curry.

Ivy-Curry and reserve forward Aleu Aleu have been out the last two games in Covid-19 protocols.

Reserve center Phoenix Ford didn’t play as he prepares for the birth of his first child, a school spokesman said in a text.

Center Jacob Germany led the Roadrunners with 17 points and five rebounds. Dhieu Deing, the team’s leading scorer, had a tough day with five of 16 shooting. He finished with 14 points.

Reserve guard Christian Tucker came off the bench for a career-high 12 points.

Once again, offense was a struggle for the Roadrunners, who finished with 37 percent shooting. UTSA hit only 3 of 20 attempts from 3-point territory.

Records

Illinois State 8-5
UTSA 6-6

First half

Behind the outside shooting of Reeves, the Redbirds shot 51 percent from the field and rolled to a 39-28 lead at intermission.

Illinois State was effective in transition and in half court sets in hitting 17 of 33 shots in the opening 20 minutes.

UTSA started with a burst of energy on both ends of the floor to take a 10-7 lead. Deing hit a three-pointer and Germany nailed two baskets, including a converted three-point play.

From there, the Redbirds controlled the action, with Reeves hitting six of eight from the field and two 3-pointers.

Reeves, a 6-6 junior guard, finished the half with 14 points and six rebounds. His 3-point shot with 5:11 remaining lifted the Redbirds into a 32-20 lead with 5:11 remaining.

For UTSA in the first half, Germany had nine points. Cedrick Alley Jr. had six points and five rebounds. The Roadrunners were shooting 38.7 percent from the field.

Notable

A UTSA home game against Our Lady of the Lake, originally scheduled for Wednesday night, has been postponed because of Covid issues in the OLLU program.

So, for the time being, the next game on the Roadrunners’ schedule is Dec. 30, when they travel to play at Middle Tennessee State in the Conference USA opener.

Quotable

“They got a bunch of guys that can shoot the basketball, and they got some transition buckets. We just couldn’t slow them down,” UTSA coach Steve Henson told the team’s radio broadcast. “Our offensive struggles were pretty apparent in both halves. (Christian Tucker) was the one bright spot there. Gave us some great penetration on multiple occasions.”

On the break for Christmas, Henson said he will give his players the rest of the week off with a plan to return to practice on Sunday.

“We’re not playing the way we want to, but our guys are doing a pretty good job of staying together,” Henson said. “They understand that we’re not there, but we’re not that far off.”

When the team gathers again to resume workouts, Henson said he hopes to have everyone back.

“It’s a fresh start,” Henson said. “We got to take the positives and build on ’em. Got to stay together. Got to keep getting better. Hopefully we’ll get Jordan and Aleu back (and) get Phoenix back.”

Added Henson: “It’s (about) to get real, real hard, real real soon. But I think our guys are going to be up for it.”

Taking a look at talent from the 210 in Division I men’s basketball

Here is a glance at players from San Antonio area high schools in NCAA Division I men’s basketball:

Men

Shelby Adams, Texas State, 6-3 senior guard from Judson

Bryon Armstrong, Incarnate Word, 6-2 freshman from Antonian

Tristan Clark, SMU, 6-10 senior forward from Wagner; transfer from Baylor

Marques Gates, Houston Baptist, 6-foot freshman guard from Clemens

Jalen Jackson, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 5-11 junior guard from Wagner; transfer from North Texas

A&M-Corpus Christi guard Jalen Jackson playing at the UTSA Convocation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi guard Jalen Jackson, in action earlier this season at UTSA. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Ja’Sean Jackson, Abilene Christian, 6-0 freshman guard from Wagner

Ellis Jefferson, Lamar, 6-0 sophomore guard from Brandeis

Gerald Liddell, Alabama State, 6-8 junior forward from Steele; transfer from Texas

Kijana Love, Baylor, 6-1 senior guard from Steele; transfer from New Hampshire and St. Edward’s

Langston Love, Baylor, 6-5 freshman guard from Steele and Montverde Academy (Fla.)

Jayden Martinez, New Hampshire, 6-7 senior forward from Steele

Kevin McCullar, Texas Tech, 6-6 redshirt junior guard from Wagner

Ze’Rik Onyema, UTEP, 6-8 freshman forward from Jay

Jacob Teer, Incarnate Word, 6-7 freshman from St. Anthony

Stanley Umude, Arkansas, 6-6 senior from Warren; transfer from South Dakota

Ethan White, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 6-3 grad student guard from East Central

Brendan Wenzel, Wyoming, 6-7 sophomore guard from O’Connor; transfer from Utah

Dalen Whitlock, Texas State, 6-4 freshman guard from Clark

Players from San Antonio area who attended high school out of the area, now in NCAA Division I

Zach Clemence, Kansas, 6-10 freshman forward, hometown listed as San Antonio, from Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.)

Micah Peavy, TCU, 6-7 sophomore forward, hometown listed as Cibolo, from Duncanville; transfer from Texas Tech

UT Rio Grande Valley buries short-handed UTSA, 68-50

Steve Henson. UT Rio Grande Valley beat UTSA 68-50 on Friday, Nov. 17, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA guard Dhieu Deing and coach Steve Henson had a rough night Friday as the Roadrunners lost at home by 18 points. With two UTSA players sidelined in health and safety protocols, UT Rio Grande Valley won 68-50 to snap a five-game losing streak. – Photo by Joe Alexander

With two players sidelined in health and safety protocols, the UTSA Roadrunners experienced a horrible start and an even worse finish to a basketball game played on their home court Friday night.

Objectively speaking, though, the UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros had a lot to do with Roadrunners’ misery both early and late.

The Vaqueros held the home team to 3 of 17 shooting in the game’s first eight minutes, and then they hit 57 percent from the field themselves in the second half to claim a 68-50 victory at the UTSA Convocation Center.

UTRGV’s determined play notwithstanding, the Roadrunners clearly missed starting point guard Jordan Ivy-Curry.

Both Ivy-Curry and reserve forward Aleu Aleu were forced to sit out in protocols designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Against slumping UTRGV, the Roadrunners failed to make up for what Ivy-Curry gives them as a scorer, as a defender and as a floor leader.

“We just missed some real, real easy (shots) early in the game, and then forced some things,” UTSA coach Steve Henson told the UTSA radio broadcast. “Didn’t get any rhythm.”

After falling behind by 13 points in the first half, the Roadrunners briefly found a spark, surging behind Jacob Germany to pull within one at intermission.

Cedrick Alley Jr. UT Rio Grande Valley beat UTSA 68-50 on Friday, Nov. 17, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Cedrick Alley Jr. came off the bench to produce 15 points and seven rebounds. Alley played 28 minutes despite missing a few practices earlier this week with an illness. – Photo by Joe Alexander

In the second half, they played well early, forging a 34-28 lead at one point. But after that, the Roadrunners just couldn’t hang on against a team intent on breaking a five-game losing streak.

The Vaqueros went on a monster 29-5 run to blow the Roadrunners out. During the streak, the Roadrunners went scoreless for nine agonizing minutes.

Associate head coach Mike Peck told Henson that UTSA went 15 straight possessions without a basket.

“You can be pretty good defensively, and you go 15 straight trips without putting the ball in the hole … at some point, it’s really, really going to stress your defense,” Henson said.

For the Vaqueros, the win was sweet. It was their first victory since Nov. 23 when they registered a 72-67 decision over Cal Fullerton. The Vaqueros had lost five in a row since then, falling in difficult road games at Illinois and at Texas along the way.

Coming into the game, UTSA was just starting to find a rhythm on offense. The Roadrunners had won five of seven games. In their last game, they hit 47 percent of their shots from the field in a five-point, neutral site victory over Sam Houston State.

Against UTRGV, the Roadrunners were held to a chilly 25.7 percent from the field. With the Vaqueros packing their defenders inside to stop the 6-foot-11 Germany, UTSA couldn’t capitalize, making only 2 of 21 from three-point territory.

Records

UTSA 6-5
UT Rio Grande Valley 5-7

Coming up

Tuesday — UTSA at Illinois State, 2 p.m.
Wednesday — Our Lady of the Lake at UTSA, 7 p.m.

Individuals

UTRGV — Forward Marek Nelson produced a team-high 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals. Guard BJ Simmons scored 12 and Xavier Johnson came off the bench to add 11. Both knocked down three, 3-point baskets. Justin Johnson, UTRGV’s leading scorer, was held to four points on 2 of 10 shooting.

UTSA — Center Jacob Germany had 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. Cedrick Alley Jr. went for 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Dhieu Deing, UTSA’s leading scorer, had his toughest night of the season with only seven points to break his string of 10 straight games in double figures. Deing was held to 3 of 18 shooting.

Notebook

The UTSA trainer delivered the news to Henson about Ivy-Curry and Aleu late Wednesday night. On Thursday, the two players were not at practice, and Henson acknowledged their status. Henson said he wasn’t sure how long they would be out. UTSA opens Conference USA play on Dec. 30 at Middle Tennessee State.

Jacob Germany. UT Rio Grande Valley beat UTSA 68-50 on Friday, Nov. 17, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jacob Germany scored 16 points and pulled down nine rebounds. In his last four games, Germany has averaged 16.5 points and 7.8 boards. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Two UTSA basketball players sidelined in COVID protocols

Jordan Ivy-Curry. A&M-Corpus Christi beat UTSA 77-58 on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sidelined by COVID-19 protocols, high-scoring UTSA guard Jordan Ivy-Curry is not expected to play Friday night when the Roadrunners host UT Rio Grande Valley. – File photo by Joe Alexander

Starting guard Jordan Ivy-Curry and backup forward Aleu Aleu, a promising newcomer, have landed in COVID-19 protocols and are not expected to play for the UTSA Roadrunners when they host the UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros Friday night.

UTSA coach Steve Henson didn’t say whether either one had tested positive, only that they were in protocols. But he did say that neither is feeling symptoms. He said he isn’t certain how long the two will be unavailable.

“We got all this news late last night, very late last night,” Henson said following a Thursday afternoon practice. “Don’t know all the details. But, certainly (neither will play) tomorrow.”

Neither attended the team’s practice.

Even though the Roadrunners have won three of four and five of their last seven, they have done so in spite of a stretch of adversity covering most of the past three weeks.

Guard Darius McNeill went down on Nov. 24 with a foot injury and has been out for three straight games nursing a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Forward Cedrick Alley Jr., one of the team’s hottest shooters of late, battled an illness that caused him to miss most of the team’s practices this week.

Both worked out Thursday and appear to be ready to go for the game against the Vaqueros.

At the same time, the loss of Ivy-Curry and Aleu is troublesome, given that the Roadrunners play three games in the next six days.

“It is what it is,” Henson said. “Juice is obviously a key guy. The role he’s played the last few games, getting almost all the minutes at the point guard spot, I liked the progress he was making in that regard. He was feeling pretty good. I liked what he was doing.”

Ivy-Curry, a sophomore from Houston, has emerged as the team’s second leading scorer. He is averaging 14.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 10 games.

Aleu Aleu. UTSA beat St. Mary's 76-65 in men's basketball on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Aleu Aleu (above) played 22 minutes on Saturday in Houston and had come on strong in recent practices. – File photo by Joe Alexander

Slowed by injuries to start the season, Aleu, a 6-foot-8 native of Africa, has played in only four games, the last four, averaging 10 minutes as he worked his way back.

Last Saturday, he played a season-high 22 minutes in Houston against Sam Houston State, hit his first three-pointer and contributed with an all-around game.

The former Austin High School and Temple College standout had started to come on strong for UTSA in recent practices, as well, showing off a sweet stroke on three-point shots.

“We were going to try to expand his role rather significantly,” Henson said.

Coming up

UT Rio Grande Valley (4-7) at UTSA (6-4), Friday at 7 p.m.

Notebook

The Roadrunners are scheduled to travel on Monday and then play on Tuesday afternoon at Illinois State in Normal, Ill. On Wednesday night, they’re scheduled to play at home against San Antonio-based Our Lady of the Lake University.

After a break for Christmas, they open Conference USA competition on the road the following week. The Roadrunners will play at Middle Tennessee State on Dec. 30 and at UAB on Jan. 1.

Senior Darius McNeill said it’s “very important” for the team to continue playing well in the three non-conference games.

“If we just stick to how coach wants to play, moving the ball around, playing hard on defense, (we’ll be OK),” he said. “You’ve seen us. Everyone’s touching the ball, everybody’s just flowing … We’re playing like a team — like a winning team.”

McNeill says he’s feeling much better after the bout with the plantar fasciitis, his second such bout in two seasons. He said the injury knocked him out of the lineup for “four or five” games last season at SMU.

McNeill returned to workouts on Monday and did a little more on Tuesday. He said his workout on Wednesday was his first “going up and down” in a game-like situation this week.

“When I was scoring and (doing) certain things off my foot, it felt good,” he said. “I was just playing with a clear mind. Mentally, I’m in a very good space.”

Taking better shots, UTSA starts to hit a higher percentage

Dhieu Deing. UTSA beat Lamar 79-73 in men's basketball on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Guard Dhieu Deing leads UTSA in scoring with 17.6 points per game. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The UTSA Roadrunners’ offense hasn’t created as many problems for opponents this year as it did last year.

Last year, with Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace on the floor, UTSA’s foes couldn’t slack off without one or the other pulling up and burying a 28 footer. The Roadrunners averaged 78.8 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting.

This year, with Jackson and Wallace having moved on to seek their fortunes in pro ball, the Roadrunners have forged through some uncertain times, hitting on a 39.1 percent clip and averaging 70.2 points.

After a shaky start, some soul searching and extensive work on the practice floor, UTSA nevertheless has started to become more efficient recently. In their last four games, the Roadrunners are averaging 74 points and knocking down 42.4 percent from the field.

Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re 3-1 in that stretch.

“We’re just getting better shots and moving it better,” Roadrunners coach Steve Henson said after Tuesday afternoon’s workout at the Convocation Center. “We’ve had good starts the last two games. We’re making progress.”

Heating up

Here’s a glance at UTSA’s shooting, game by game, in its last four outings, including final score and field goal makes-attempts:

Nov. 24 — UTSA beats Lamar, 79-73. FG: 25-53
Nov. 29 — UTSA beats St. Mary’s, 75-65. FG: 24-59
Dec. 2 — Grand Canyon beats UTSA, 74-71. FG: 25-69
Dec. 11 — UTSA beats Sam Houston State, 78-73. FG 27-57
(UTSA four-game total, field goal makes-attempts, 101-238, for 42.4 percent)

Coming up

Friday, 7 p.m. — UT Rio Grande Valley (4-7) at UTSA (6-4).

Notebook

UTRGV played at home in Edinburg on Tuesday night and lost 70-60 to the Texas Southern Tigers. The Vaqueros have lost five in a row.

After the Roadrunners downed the Bearkats in Houston on Saturday, they traveled back to San Antonio that night, took Sunday as a day off and returned to work Monday with a weight training session, film study and a practice.

On Tuesday morning, they did a community service project, traveling to help the San Antonio Food Bank with a distribution at South San High School.

In an extremely positive sign for the team, senior guard Darius McNeill has returned to practice this week. McNeill had sat out since tweaking his right foot against Lamar on Nov. 24.

Upon his return Monday, he did more than expected and then seemed to be back to his usual speedy self in a two-hour drill Tuesday afternoon. Henson said he’s uncertain whether McNeill will play on Friday.

“He looked pretty good,” the coach said, “better than I anticipated.”

A concern was power forward Cedrick Alley Jr., who has been ill the past few days. Alley did not attend Tuesday’s workout. “He wasn’t feeling well yesterday and was feeling worse today,” the coach said. “Got to get him tested, get him checked out.”

Junior transfer Aleu Aleu, who missed all of the October practices with a quad injury and sat out the first six games of the season, closed the workout with a flourish.

Aleu Aleu is a 6-foot-8 junior guard/forward who comes to the UTSA men's basketball team from Temple Community College. - photo by Joe Alexander

Aleu Aleu, a 6-8 junior, played a season-high 22 minutes Saturday in Houston. – File photo by Joe Alexander

Unofficially, he knocked down at least five in a row from behind the 3-point line to complete his workout.

“He’s getting so much more comfortable,” Henson said.

Aleu, a newcomer, is a 6-foot-8 forward, a finesse-type player who weighs only 180 pounds. He grew up in Africa but later moved into the Austin area and attended junior college in Temple.

He played 22 minutes against Sam Houston State and impressed coaches with a few heady plays. He finished with three points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals.

Deing scores 26 as UTSA holds off Sam Houston State, 78-73

Frittering away most of an 18-point halftime lead, the UTSA Roadrunners steadied themselves in the last minute Saturday to turn back the Sam Houston State Bearkats, 78-73, in a neutral-site game at Houston.

“It was a good win for us,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said on the team’s radio broadcast from the Toyota Center, the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. “Found a way to get it in the right column.”

UTSA guard Dhieu Deing sank two free throws with 10 seconds left for the final points of the game. With the two clutch freebies, UTSA finished 14 of 14 at the line.

Deing, a junior transfer in his first season with the Roadrunners, scored a team-high 26 points.

For the 6-foot-5 former North Carolina schoolboy, a Louisiana native whose family grew up in Africa, it was his fourth game of 20 or more points in his last six outings.

Deing hit 8 of 18 from the field, 4 of 10 from three and 6 of 6 at the free throw line.

As a team, UTSA shot 47.4 percent from the field, one of its best marks of the season. For the season, the Roadrunners are shooting a sub-par 39.1 percent, but they have improved to a combined 42.4 over the last four games, during which they have forged a 3-1 record.

Late in the first half, the Roadrunners played one of their best stretches of the season, finishing on a 20-4 run to lead 42-24 at intermission.

But in the second half, the Bearkats nearly came all the way back. They surged 14-2, a run capped by Savion Flagg’s three-pointer, to forge a 63-63 tie with 6:35 remaining.

Undeterred, the Roadrunners answered with a decisive 9-0 run of their own, with Cedrick Alley, Jr.’s three starting it. From there, Jordan Ivy-Curry hit a layup and Deing sank a layup and two free throws.

All of a sudden, it was 72-63 with 4:10 remaining.

“Basketball is a game of runs,” Ivy-Curry said. “You got to keep up the intensity. Keep moving forward. Because even though you have slip ups, you know, keep playing.”

With Darius McNeill injured and not playing, Ivy-Curry has taken on added responsibility to play point guard.

Henson said he’s doing a good job with it, for the most part. He’s making progress, the coach said.

“Dhieu, from the start of the season to this point, has probably improved the most,” Henson said. “I thought he might have backed up a little today with his shot selection. We thought we had those out of his system. But he’s made progress as well.”

Records

UTSA 6-4
Sam Houston State 3-6

Coming up

Dec. 17 — UT Rio Grande Valley at UTSA, 7 p.m.

Individual highlights

UTSA — Cedrick Alley Jr. produced 17 points, six rebounds and four steals. Alley, who shot the ball with confidence for the second straight game, hit 7 of 10 from the field.

Playing point guard for the most part, Ivy-Curry had 16 points, four rebounds and three assists. Center Jacob Germany had 14 points and eight rebounds.

Sam Houston — Senior guard Demarkus Lampley scored 23 points, including seven 3-point baskets. Lampley made five threes in the second half. Flagg finished with a double-double, producing 19 points and 13 rebounds.

First half

Playing their best half of the season, the Roadrunners shot 53.6 percent from the field en route to a 42-24 lead at intermission.

The scoring was balanced among starters with Deing notching 12, Cedric Alley Jr. 10, Ivy-Curry 9 and Jacob Germany 8.

Continuing an offensive surge from UTSA’s last game, Alley was 4 for 5 from the field, including 2 of 3 from three.

Also, Alley pulled down five rebounds as UTSA controlled the boards, 24-15, and held Sam Houston State to 27.3 percent.

Sam Houston’s Savion Flagg, a transfer from Texas A&M, had 11 points and five rebounds at the half.

The Bearkats pulled to within two of the Roadrunners when Flagg hit a three mid-way through the half. From there, UTSA put together a 20-4 run.

Notebook

Sam Houston State and UTSA played each other annually for more than two decades as members of the Southland Conference. UTSA moved out of the Southland and into the Western Athletic Conference in 2012-13. UTSA opened in Conference USA in 2013-14. Sam Houston State is playing this season in its first year as a member of the WAC.

In his fourth game of the season, UTSA newcomer Aleu Aleu played 21 minutes and finished with three points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals.

He hit his first three-pointer of the season with a minute left in the first half.

Aleu, a 6-foot-8 native of Kenya, played in high school in Austin and in junior college at Temple. Nursing a quadriceps injury, he sat out most of the team’s preseason camp in October.

Senior transfer Darius McNeill sat out his third straight game with a foot injury. He hasn’t practiced since he suffered the mishap on Nov. 24 in a home game against Lamar … Guards Erik Czumbel and Christian Tucker played only limited minutes. Czumbel battled through an illness in recent days.

UTSA walk-on Christian Tucker makes his presence known

Christian Tucker. UTSA beat St. Mary's 76-65 in men's basketball on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA freshman Christian Tucker, a 6-foot-3 guard from Chandler, Ariz., has been around the game all his life. His father was director of security for the Phoenix Suns. — Photo by Joe Alexander

With a key player injured and with the Conference USA portion of the schedule looming at the end of the month, the UTSA Roadrunners clearly will need a boost in the next three or four games.

They’ll need to develop some additional firepower to augment the production of Dhieu Deing, Jacob Germany, Jordan Ivy-Curry and Cedrick Alley Jr. They’ll need a better flow to their offense, for sure.

When the ball swings around the perimeter, and it lands in the hands of someone who bobbles it or hesitates, UTSA can look extremely ordinary and, against the better teams, quite vulnerable.

To be better, the team will need someone else to emerge.

Lately, one source of optimism has been supplied by walk-on freshman guard Christian Tucker, who has stepped into an injury-related void in the backcourt and has slowly started to gain the confidence of coaches.

In the absence of senior Darius McNeill, who has a foot injury, hasn’t played in the last two games and still isn’t practicing, Tucker has jumped in to try and make a name for himself.

Given the opportunity, the 6-foot-3 walk-on from Chandler, Ariz., has shown a savvy presence, modest bursts of offense and some clutch play.

Averaging about 15 minutes in UTSA’s last three games, Tucker has scored a combined 14 points in that stretch, displaying a knack for driving, drawing contact in the paint and knocking down free throws.

He is 11 for 13 at the line combined against Lamar, St. Mary’s and Phoenix, Ariz.-based Grand Canyon University.

“I feel like my all-around game is pretty good,” Tucker said. “But every time I’m able to get in the paint to make a play, or make a strong layup, I feel like I can do that. Not really many people can stop me from doing that, so I might as well just go to it.”

Tucker scored nine points in 12 minutes off the bench in a 79-73 victory over Lamar on Nov. 24. McNeill went down with a foot injury that day, so it was a welcome sight for Roadrunners coaches.

“He’s doing a heck of a job,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “First night we really played him, you could see his court savvy. His gamesmanship. Drew a bunch of fouls that night.

“He had a couple of games where the defense got after him pretty good. But then he settled back down. Made some big shots. Made some big free throws for us.”

Another moment came against St. Mary’s on Nov. 29 when he took a pass from Deing, drove to the rim and was fouled in the waning moments of a close game. He made both free throws to help seal the victory.

“He’s a real confident guy,” Henson said. “Very mature, you know. I’m not surprised. Again, he wasn’t playing at all and then we threw him in there.

“So, he’s going to continue getting comfortable. Like I said, he’s got the right maturity level and confidence level to be able to do what he did.

“That wasn’t easy. To just throw him in there all of a sudden. He’s produced pretty well.”

Tucker, a native of Mission Hills, Calif., moved to the Phoenix area when he was a toddler.

Though he enjoyed playing soccer and flag football as a kid, basketball was his passion.

His father worked as director of security for the Phoenix Suns, so he was around some of the greatest players in the NBA.

“It’s been really good for me,” Tucker said. “Being surrounded by basketball my whole life, it’s pretty much all I know. Watching NBA players, watching all sorts of players compete … has been really good.”

Watching him at practice, you get the feeling that he would enjoy playing basketball even if games were held on a black top somewhere, with chains hanging on the rims instead of nets.

A few days ago, his group made a defensive stop, prompting Tucker to let out a loud scream that could probably be heard in the upper reaches of the Convocation Center.

At the start of the year, he wasn’t playing. Now he is, and Tucker said he welcomes the opportunity. He admitted it feels “really” good.

“My biggest thing is doing whatever it takes to make sure we win,” he said. “As long as I keep doing that, I feel like I can keep getting playing time.”

Coming up

Saturday, 3 p.m. — UTSA (5-4) vs. Sam Houston State (3-5), at Houston, in the Toyota Center.