Florida Atlantic men, Middle Tennessee State women win in C-USA tournaments

Top-seeded teams in both Conference USA basketball tournaments emerged Saturday as postseason champions, with both the Florida Atlantic University men and the Middle Tennessee State women claiming automatic bids into their respective NCAA tournaments. The C-USA’s tournaments were held at The Star in Frisco.

All UTSA sports teams will transition from the C-USA into the American Athletic Conference next season.

Men’s title game

The FAU Owls bolted to a 19-point halftime lead and cruised to the C-USA postseason title on Saturday night. Alijah Martin led the Owls with 30 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. UTSA entered the tournament as the No. 11 seed and lost in the first round last Wednesday against No. 6 Rice, 72-71. A potential game-winning shot by Japhet Medor was initially counted and then waved off because it was released after the buzzer.

Women’s title game

Top-ranked Middle Tennessee State defeated No. 2 Western Kentucky, 82-70, on Saturday for the C-USA postseason championship. Jalynn Gregory made 5 of 5 3-pointers and scored 24 points for the Lady Raiders. Sixth-seeded UTSA went 2-1 in the tournament. Karen Aston’s Roadrunners beat No. 11 Florida Atlantic 69-68 in the first round and No. 3 Rice 62-54 in the quarterfinals before bowing out of the semifinals Friday night, falling 70-55 to the Lady Toppers.

Surging UTSA women open C-USA tourney today against Florida Atlantic

Karen Aston. UTSA women's basketball beat No. 21 Middle Tennessee 58-53 on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, at the Convocation Center. - Photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Karen Aston (right) says junior guard Kyra White has taken ‘complete ownership of our program’ in a 7-3 run to close the team’s 20-game Conference USA schedule. – File photo by Joe Alexander

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

UTSA coach Karen Aston says it’s been amazing for her to watch the growth of her team over the last five weeks of the season. She says she’s excited about the “vibe” from the fans on campus.

Starting today in Frisco, Aston hopes to expand the interest even more when her sixth-seeded Roadrunners play the No. 11 Florida Atlantic University Owls in the first round of the Conference USA women’s basketball tournament.

Leading the way will be forward Jordyn Jenkins, who was named Tuesday as UTSA’s first Player of the Year in the C-USA, and former Judson High School standout Kyra White.

Both transferred from Southern Cal in the offseason to join Aston in a rebuild of a team that has been down for years.

“I really do believe word of mouth is getting out and that people are starting to believe in our program,” said Aston, in her second year at UTSA. “When you have a player like Jordyn, in particular, that chose to come here and take a chance on our vision … (and) you see Kyra White come home and take complete ownership of our program, it’s really fun to watch.”

The Roadrunners (11-18, 9-11) and the Owls (12-17, 5-15) will play today at 2 p.m. at The Star, the multi-purpose training site for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

If UTSA wins, it would advance to take on third-seeded Rice (22-7, 13-7) on Thursday in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are set for Friday night and the finals on Saturday afternoon, with the C-USA postseason champion earning an NCAA tournament berth.

Aston says she wants her players to believe they can win their way into the NCAAs.

“I want ’em to believe,” she said. “Absolutely. I think we’ve played well enough to believe. We’ve got to go out and do it, and we understand that, but I think we’ve played well enough. This isn’t a fluke, as far as how well we’re playing, and I think they need to believe that.”

Confidence built gradually over the past month for the Roadrunners, who posted a 7-3 record in the second half of the 20-game C-USA schedule. During the run, UTSA posted victories over three teams that finished in the top five in the standings, including No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee State.

C-USA tournament
Today’s openers at Frisco

Women — (8) FIU vs. (9) Charlotte, 11 a.m.; (7) North Texas vs. (10) UAB, 1:30 p.m.; (6) UTSA vs. (11) FAU, 2 p.m.

Men — (8) Western Kentucky vs. (9) UTEP, 5:30 p.m.; (7) FIU vs. (10) Louisiana Tech, 8 p.m.; (6) Rice vs. (11) UTSA, 8:30 p.m.

Seedings in parentheses

UTSA’s Buggs: ‘We’re stoked as a team’ for the C-USA tournament

John Buggs III. UTSA beat Charlotte 78-73 in Conference USA men's basketball on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in the final game of the regular season at the Convocation Center. - Photo by Joe Alexander

Hot-shooting guard John Buggs III will lead the UTSA Roadrunners into their Conference USA tournament opener Wednesday night in Frisco against the Rice Owls. – File photo by Joe Alexander

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

The UTSA Roadrunners were scheduled to hit the highway on Monday afternoon, headed for Frisco.


The Conference USA tournament.

Because the tournament opener against the Rice Owls remained a few days away, one of the most pressing questions following a morning practice at the Convocation Center had to do with what was on the menu for lunch on the bus ride.

“Probably Jason’s Deli or Firehouse Subs, something light, like that,” UTSA guard John Buggs III said, smiling.

News flash. The Roadrunners didn’t dine on subs this time. This time, they had chicken sandwiches.

Steve Henson. UTSA beat Charlotte 78-73 in Conference USA men's basketball on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in the final game of the regular season at the Convocation Center. - Photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson hopes to build on his team’s strong finish to the regular season when the Roadrunners open the C-USA tournament Wednesday against the Rice Owls. — File photo by Joe Alexander

“I think it’s Chick-fil-A,” Roadrunners coach Steve Henson said later. “And then we’ll probably stop at Buc-ee’s.”

No matter the delicacy awaiting them, the 11th-seeded Roadrunners hope to spice it up considerably on the opening day of the tournament Wednesday night when they take on the No. 6 Owls at The Star, the multi-use training site for the Dallas Cowboys.

“We’re excited,” Buggs said. “We’re stoked as a team. You know, coach is in good spirits. He’s coaching us harder than ever. Man, we really believe we can do something special.”

To make all the noise that they’d like to make this week, the Roadrunners (10-21, 4-16) will first need to map out a plan to beat the Owls (17-14, 8-12).

UTSA split with Rice during the regular season, losing at home and then winning a few weeks ago on the road.

In both games, the Roadrunners had good success scoring, with the outcome both times coming down to how they fared on the defensive end.

“I feel like Rice is a great match up for us,” Buggs said. “We played them very close both times. With us drawing Rice, we couldn’t have a better first opponent, both in the matchups and what they’re going to do.”

Center Max Fiedler and guards Quincy Olivari and Travis Evee are the Owls’ top players.

Olivari scored 30 points in an 88-81 overtime victory over the Roadrunners at UTSA back in January.

In that same game, Fiedler, a center with a wide array of ball skills, produced a triple double as Rice overcame an 18-point deficit to win in the extra period.

“It’s kind of hard to simulate Fiedler,” Buggs said. “But we know exactly what they’re going to do and who’s going to take the shots at crunch time. So I feel like we’re very prepared for what’s coming up on Wednesday.”

In the rematch between the teams on Feb. 16 in Houston, UTSA pulled off a surprise of sorts, winning 84-79.

The Roadrunners shot 52.5 percent from the field, and Buggs led four UTSA players in double figures with 23 points.

In that game, Buggs, a redshirt sophomore, hit eight of 10 shots from the field. Included in the barrage were five 3-point baskets in only seven attempts.

For the 6-foot-3 Louisiana native, it was the start of a hot streak. Starting with the Rice game, Buggs leads UTSA in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game in the last five coming into the C-USA tournament.

During that stretch, he has hit a sizzling 54.5 percent from the field and 52.9 percent on threes. From three-point distance, Buggs has launched plenty of them (34) and has knocked down plenty (18) to give opponents fits.

Guard Japhet Medor has also played well over the last five, averaging an even 16 points. Not coincidentally, with both backcourt standouts clicking, UTSA has posted a 3-2 record coming into Frisco.

Buggs, who averages 11 points on 39 percent shooting from the field and 40.1 percent from three for the season, said he isn’t doing anything differently from a practice standpoint to account for his higher percentages.

“Nothing has changed,” he said. “Man, I have attacked every day the same way. It’s kind of like, I was putting in a lot of work in the first half of the season and wasn’t necessarily getting the results.

“After awhile, if you keep doing the right things in the dark, it’s going to come to the light. I just trusted in the work that I put in.”

As far as Buggs is concerned, the same can be said for the recent success of the team coming on the heels of a discouraging 11-game losing streak.

“I just felt like we’ve always kind of been right there,” he said. “Two or three plays went bad and it just led into droughts. But, I feel like, we never wavered as a team. We almost had moments of breaking up. But we stayed together throughout the losses.

“I mean, I felt like the basketball gods owe us at this point. So, it’s March, and you know in March anything can happen. So we’re looking forward to that anything.”

C-USA tournament
Wednesday’s openers at Frisco

Women — (8) FIU vs. (9) Charlotte, 11 a.m.; (7) North Texas vs. (10) UAB, 1:30 p.m.; (6) UTSA vs. (11) FAU, 2 p.m.

Men — (8) Western Kentucky vs. (9) UTEP, 5:30 p.m.; (7) FIU vs. (10) Louisiana Tech, 8 p.m.; (6) Rice vs. (11) UTSA, 8:30 p.m.

Seedings in parentheses

Japhet Medor. UTSA lost to UAB 83-78 in Conference USA men's basketball on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, at the Convocation Center. - Photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA point guard Japhet Medor (No. 1, above) has served as a scorer and facilitator this season. During UTSA’s 3-2 push down the stretch, John Buggs leads the team in scoring at 16.6 per game, while Medor is second at 16.0. — File photo by Joe Alexander

As tournament time looms, UTSA ramps up offensive execution

Jhivvan Jackson. UTSA beat Southwestern Adventist from Keene, Texas, 123-43 in a non-conference game on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson and the UTSA Roadrunners have started to click offensively — and just in time. The Conference USA tournament starts next week in Frisco. — Photo by Joe Alexander

In the past, when the UTSA Roadrunners have faltered, indecision has often haunted the offensive execution. On plays that required a split-second decision on whether to shoot, drive or pass, a glitch of some sort has materialized.

The play, in many cases, has suffered a timing-related break down. Lately, by contrast, the offense has flowed as freely as ever.

During the team’s past two games against the UAB Blazers and the Southwestern Adventist Knights, the Roadrunners have averaged 104.5 points on 61.4 percent shooting from the field. The team’s assist to turnovers ratio is an eye-popping 3-1, based on 51 assists and 17 turnovers in the two games combined.

Granted, the Knights were out-sized and out-matched athletically by the Roadrunners Thursday night, when the Roadrunners rolled, 123-43. At the same time, UTSA executed nearly as well on Feb. 27 against the Blazers, who rank among the best teams in Conference USA.

The groove, for UTSA’s offense, is unmistakable leading into next week’s C-USA tournament at Frisco.

“It’s such a good feeling, knowing that everybody can step up at any moment,” UTSA forward Adrian Rodriguez said. “What I enjoy the most out of that, is that we all trust each other. You know, we trust each other to make that extra pass. To give the ball to the man that’s open. Whenever we need it. And everybody makes plays. The right plays. Especially recently. The most recent games.

“The ball movement is beautiful. With great shots. That shows that you can trust each other.”

UTSA’s offense hasn’t always been beautiful during the team’s 9-2 streak over the past seven weeks. Occasionally, an opponent’s heightened defensive effort will create a whole lot of ugly over a 40-minute stretch.

For example, the UTEP Miners clamped down on the Roadrunners on Jan. 30 in El Paso. The Roadrunners shot 29.5 percent from the field, while the ball movement disappeared, in a 69-51 loss.

The same thing happened to the Roadrunners at home on Feb. 26. The Blazers applied sort of a soft backcourt trap and caused all sorts of problems, leading to 19 UTSA turnovers and 38 percent shooting. UAB, predictably, won in a 64-57 battle.

Other than those two games, though, the Roadrunners’ offense has looked as formidable as it has in UTSA coach Steve Henson’s five-year tenure.

During the 11-game stretch, UTSA’s ball handling has produced seven games in which assists have out-numbered turnovers. Not coincidentally, the team went 7-0 in those games. When the ball movement produced double-figure assists, the Roadrunners were 8-1. Six times, all of them victories, UTSA shot 50 percent or better from the floor.

Given the extended track record, it seems to indicate that the Roadrunners have played well enough over time to inspire a belief that they can make a run, when the tournament opens next Wednesday, March 10, at The Star. UTSA coach Steve Henson expressed optimism leading into next week.

“We’ve been talking about that for several weeks,” Henson said. “We wanted to play that Charlotte weekend. We got those games snowed out. Didn’t play particularly well the first night against UAB. We played much better the second night. So I didn’t think there was any setback mentally, from where we were at, at that point.

“Again, we’ve had some good stretches in practice. The ball movement and the trust level is at the highest it’s been all year, in terms of trusting teammates to make plays. So, I like what we’re doing on the offensive end.”

Over the past few days, the coach talked to players about ramping up intensity on the defensive end.

“Just (in) doing the right things, talking,” he said. “Just a little more edge to it. We got three and a half (or) four more opportunities to do that. Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday. So, I hope our guys will respond the right way in practice.”