If Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace have played in their last game for UTSA, it was a tough way to go out.
The Charles Bassey-led Western Kentucky Hilltoppers scored an easy 80-67 victory over the Roadrunners Thursday night in Frisco, in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA championships.
Wallace emerged as the only consistent threat on a frustrating night for the Roadrunners as he scored 30 points. Jackson, the school’s all-time leading scorer, was held to five on 2 of 12 shooting.
Bassey, a 6-foot-11 center, finished with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocked shots for the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said he doesn’t know how Bassey would be feeling on Friday morning, when the team meets the UAB Blazers in the tournament semifinals. The C-USA’s Player of the Year apparently was in some discomfort near the end of the game, leaving the court at one point to stretch.
“We’ll see,” Stansbury told a television reporter for Stadium. “I know he went out there (off to the side) hurt a little. So, we’ll see where he’s at. It’s a quick turnaround. We just got to find a way to be ready. Hope he’s ready to go.”
With the loss, UTSA has been eliminated from contention for the NCAA tournament. In a zoom conference with reporters, Coach Steve Henson talked as if his team had played its last game of the season.
Asked if thought he would have an opportunity to play again, in another postseason tournament, the coach said he didn’t know.
“I mean, there’s not as many tournaments available this year,” he said. “The fields are smaller. I would think it would be a long shot. We have not had any conversations about that at this point.”
But would Henson be interested in playing if the opportunity presented itself?
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think our team could beat a lot of teams in the country. I’d love to play again.”
Besides the National Invitation Tournament, which has been pared from 32 to 16 teams, with all games held in Dallas, Henson said he doesn’t know if any of the others are being played.
“We came here to try to fly to Indianapolis (for the NCAA tournament) at the end of the week and we didn’t get that done,” he said. “So, I don’t know. The NIT is the only one I’ve heard much about. They’ve reduced the field dramatically. I’m not with holding. I just don’t know.”
The College Basketball Invitational has reportedly been discussing either an eight- or 16-team field at a neutral site and that Texas State might be under consideration.
Officials announced last month that the CollegeInsider.com tournament, known as the CIT, has been cancelled. UTSA played in the CIT in 2018 and reached the second round.
Western Kentucky 19-6
Keys to the game
Western Kentucky’s defense on Jackson, primarily by freshman guard Dayvion McKnight. That, and physical play. Western Kentucky hammered the ball inside and went to the free-throw line, where they knocked down 24 of 25. UTSA finished 4 of 7 at the line.
Western Kentucky showcased a physical style at the outset, and UTSA could not match it.
As a result, the Hilltoppers rolled to a 38-25 lead.
Offense was a struggle for the usually potent Roadrunners. Jackson (1 for 5 from the field) couldn’t get going. Neither could center Jacob Germany (1 for 4). Keaton Wallace (5 for 12) scored 12, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep pace with the Hilltoppers.
Blocking seven shots, the Hilltoppers didn’t allow the Roadrunners any easy chances. As a result, UTSA shot only 27.8 percent. Western Kentucky wasn’t great either at 42.4 percent. But the C-USA East heavyweights had just enough to make life miserable for UTSA, from the C-USA West.
Carson Williams, averaging 7.4 points, scored nine in the first half Luke Frampton had seven and Taveion Hollingsworth seven. UTSA played a good half defensively on Western Kentucky star Charles Bassey, who was held to four.
Bassey poured it on in the second half with 17 of his team-high 21 points. The former San Antonio schoolboy, a native of Nigeria, also had nine rebounds and five blocked shots.
Pounding the ball inside to their big center, the Hilltoppers shot 52 percent in the final 20 minutes. At one point, they kicked the lead up to 23 points. At one juncture, with his team pulling away, Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury pulled his starters.
Just then, UTSA put on a spurt, scoring nine straight points. An 11-2 UTSA run capped by a Wallace jumper pulled the Roadrunners to within 56-46. As a result, Stansbury put Bassey and his starters back in the game.
Bassey kick-started another Western Kentucky surge, first with an inside move and a three-point play. Later, he hit a three from the top of the circle with 7:27 remaining to give the Hilltoppers a 62-48 cushion. Immediately after hitting the shot, Bassey back-pedaled and shrugged, turning both of his palms up, as the Roadrunners called time.
UTSA never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.
Crediting the Roadrunners
For the record, the Hilltoppers squelched the Roadrunners’ hopes with a suffocating defense. UTSA shot 38 percent, in large part because Jackson was so far off his game. Jackson scored 46 points to set the arena record in an overtime loss at Western Kentucky in 2019. So, the Hilltoppers set their game plan, hoping to avoid another such explosion.
Stansbury told a television reporter for Stadium that his team’s defense on UTSA’s all-time scoring leader played a major role in the outcome.
“First of all, you’ve got to give San Antonio credit,” Stansbury said. “They’ve got a terrific team. Coach does a great job with ’em. I thought the difference in the game was what you just said, especially the first half. He’s so capable of beating you himself. We’ve seen that movie before. But I thought for the most part Dayvion (McKnight), a freshman guard, guarded him about as well as you can.
“You know, Wallace probably hurt us more than anything, more than anybody, but again, overall … I thought, defensively, we were pretty good.”
Fighting the good fight
Henson said Western Kentucky started to break the game open in the first half with a defense that led to offense.
“They got out pretty easily and ran in transition,” he said. “Just popped open a lead there. We’d already used a timeout early to try and slow down a run. Then we got trapped in the corner and used a second time out … So they built the lead there. We were so stagnant offensively. We just couldn’t get easy shots. Ball just wasn’t moving. Wasn’t zipping. Credit their defense, their length bothered us certainly. Bassey blocked some shots at the rim … Just a real struggle at the offensive end.”
Henson said Jackson’s struggles came with Western Kentucky’s physical style.
“We just couldn’t get him loose,” Henson said. “They were real physical with him … grabbing and holding, just couldn’t get him in space. He had some pullup jumpers that I thought he might hit. But, couldn’t get those down. Couldn’t get anything easy. Couldn’t get him off the ball. Couldn’t get him the ball screens.
“We’d been doing a pretty good job of mixing things up lately and finding different ways to get him going. Just couldn’t. Their length affected him a lot.”
Ready for the next chapter
With the five points against Western Kentucky, Jackson has scored 2,551 in his career. He is tied for 51st in NCAA Division I history with Rodney Monroe, who played for North Carolina State through 1991. Wallace has scored 2,080.
Because of NCAA actions in the wake of the pandemic, both have the opportunity to come back and play at UTSA for another season, but Henson said “we’ve been moving along with the idea that they’ll both move on. We’ll have a conversation about it. But we’re going to wish them well. I think they’re ready for the next chapter in their lives and in their careers.”