UTSA guard Deb Nwakamma hit 6 of 12 from the field and scored a career-best 16 points in her team’s home opener Sunday at the Convocation Center.- Photo by Joe Alexander
Junior guard Deb Nwakamma hit a runner in the lane and a couple of free throws in the final 35 seconds as the UTSA Roadrunners held off the Abilene Christian University Wildcats, 76-70, for their first victory of the season Sunday afternoon at the Convocation Center.
UTSA’s home opener served as an eye-opener for those who have followed the Roadrunners’ program through the years, because the team scored 70 or more points in a game for the first time since Feb. 13, 2022.
On that date last season, UTSA hit 70 for the only time all season in an 81-70 road loss to Western Kentucky.
The victory over ACU was the first time UTSA hit at least 70 in regulation in front of the home fans since Feb. 6, 2021. In that instance, the Roadrunners scored 80 in four quarters of a 107-103 triple-overtime loss to the FIU Panthers.
UTSA reached the milestone against Abilene Christian with a balanced attack. Nwakamma, a 5-foot-8 guard from Lagos, Nigeria, finished with a team-high and career-best 16 points. She also had four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Queen Ulabo scored 11 points off the bench, while Sidney Love, Elyssa Coleman and Kyra White had 10 each for the Roadrunners, who shot 45.6 percent from the field.
Despite foul trouble, USC transfer Jordyn Jenkins played hard in her home debut with the Roadrunners, emerging with nine points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots. – Photo by Joe Alexander
Responding to the home crowd and playing with emotion, the Roadrunners (1-2) were both fast-paced and effective for most of the afternoon on the offensive end. But the Wildcats (2-2) had their moments, as well, with ACU forward Maleeah Langstaff, a freshman, erupting for 23 points and eight rebounds.
“We’ve got to shore up our defense,” UTSA second-year coach Karen Aston said. “It’s got a lot of holes in it. But our offense is light years ahead of where we were last year.”
Last year, the Roadrunners averaged 53.9 points en route to a 7-23 record. This year, there is clearly some potential for a turnaround. In their first two games, they suffered two close road losses, falling 68-63 at Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 7, before dropping a 74-67 decision at TCU last Wednesday.
Against the Wildcats, the Roadrunners strung together a few stretches on offense that left the visitors searching for answers and the home crowd cheering. In the first quarter, for instance, they shot 52.6 percent from the field. In the third quarter, they shot 47.1 percent.
Moreover, Abilene Christian came to San Antonio with a good program, one that had reached the NCAA tournament in 2019. Last year, the Wildcats won 17 games in their first season in the Western Athletic Conference and beat the Roadrunners in Abilene by 19.
This year, the Roadrunners led most of the way and then showed some poise in the fourth quarter after the Wildcats pulled to within one.
Former Steele High School standout Sidney Love started and scored 10 points in her first UTSA home game. – Photo by Joe Alexander
“I thought it was most definitely the most complete game we’ve played all year long,” Aston said. “You know, we’ve played really good in some stretches. But as far as being able to keep a tempo about ourselves, we weren’t able to do that in the previous two games, particularly in the second half.
“We talked about that at halftime, to try to keep the tempo going and continue to look for fast break moments.”
At crunch time, many in the announced crowd of 784 may have figured that the Roadrunners would collapse as they did so many times last season when the Wildcats surged to within 60-59 with 7:22 remaining.
In response, the Roadrunners showed some poise and answered with six straight points, including four by Love. The player of the year in the San Antonio area high schools last year, Love, from Steele High School, added a couple of free throws in the final minute.
Nwakamma was also clutch, driving right to left and then shooting a 10-footer that banked in with 35 seconds left. It was a shot that all but ended the game, putting UTSA up by five. Nwakamma added a pair of free throws with three seconds remaining to close out the game.
In the interview room later, Nwakamma said she couldn’t remember exactly what happened on her drive to the bucket, only that she was just trying “to fight to the end.” Aston joked that, “I took a deep breath, is what I did,” before praising Nwakamma’s overall performance.
“I thought she was aggressive the entire game,” Aston said. “She took open shots. Looked confident. She never looked like she was down on herself. We had a peace about us (as a team) when she was in the game, which is good.”
Another interesting element to the game centered around Jordyn Jenkins, UTSA’s leading scorer, who never quite got into the flow of the offense because of foul trouble. She hit four of 11 from the field and scored nine points — and the Roadrunners still beat a good team.
Nwakamma said it feels good for the team to have an unselfish mindset along with so many talented offensive weapons.
“We have team bonding that we’ve been working on, and it’s really working, just sharing the ball,” she said. “You got to play unselfish basketball, make extra passes to make sure everybody gets to do something. It’s not just one (player). It’s a team game.”
Even though the crowd was modest, the excitement in the arena was evident as UTSA’s offense pushed a fast pace for most of the afternoon.
In the third quarter, for instance, fans stood and made a racket after the Roadrunners forced a turnover and got the ball to Hailey Atwood. Atwood, who worked hard to overcome a nagging Achilles injury in the offseason, drove most of the length of the floor to score just ahead of an ACU defender.
The crowd stood and celebrated a nine-point lead, the largest of the game, with 2:04 left in the third quarter.
Asked about the support, Nwakamma said UTSA players noticed the energy in the building. “It gives us life,” she said. “It made us feel like we have a chance to win. Stuff like that, we really need it, a crowd like that.”
Abilene Christian 2-2
Queen Ulabo and Hailey Atwood celebrate the team’s first victory of the season as time expires. Both contributed off the bench, with Ulabo scoring 11 points and Atwood seven. – Photo by Joe Alexander
UTSA will open play in the Las Vegas Invitational on Friday afternoon against Missouri State. The Roadrunners will take on St. John’s on Saturday. They’ll return home to face Idaho on Dec. 10.
Two former San Antonio area high school standouts played well in their first UTSA home game. White, an all-star who contributed heavily to Judson’s state title team in 2019, produced 10 points, three assists and two rebounds in nearly 23 minutes.
Love, from Steele, had 10 points, three assists, a rebound and a steal. Both started, with White handling the ball much of the time. Love has been utilized in the last two games, at least, as a closer at the end of quarters. Against ACU, she hit the last shot of the first quarter.
Knocking down a three
Closing out a quarter
Making a simple play
Igniting the crowd
Forcing a turnover