What game winner? UTSA’s Czumbel returns to play Rice

Erik Czumbel. UTSA beat Lamar 88-66 on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Sophomore guard Erik Czumbel has emerged as a key player in the UTSA rotation, averaging 7.4 points per game in 23.9 minutes off the bench. — Photo by Joe Alexander

When UTSA guard Erik Czumbel was asked recently what he remembered about last year’s game at Rice, his basketball personality emerged in a subtle way, in something that he did not say.

“Last year, it was a competitive game,” Czumbel said. “I remember, like, they hit a lot of shots. A lot of contested threes. They played really well, and it came down to the end of the game. We played not so well in the first half. But we picked it up in the second half.”

UTSA guard Erik Czumbel, playing against Sul Ross on Dec. 4, 2020, at the Convocation Center, started two of UTSA's first six games of the season and averages 7.2 points. - photo by Joe Alexander

Czumbel, a sophomore from Verona, Italy, gives the Roadrunners a physical defensive presence in the backcourt. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Oh, and, one other thing.

Just for the record, the 6-foot-3 former Italian U-18 national team member did hit the game-winning layup with one second remaining in the Roadrunners’ pulsating 90-88 victory over the Owls.

But in keeping with Czumbel’s low-key persona as a ball player, reporters more or less had to pry that out of him with a follow-up question in a zoom conference earlier this week.

“So, Erik,” he was asked, “what do you remember about UTSA’s last offensive possession?”

Czumbel smiled.

“I know I scored the game winner last year,” he said. “They had an inbounds play from the baseline. I think we got a deflection. I remember Byron (Frohnen), I think, passing me the ball. I knew there were not that many seconds left. I just took off and tried to get a layup. And, so it went in.

“Happy ending.”

The subject of Czumbel’s heroics a year ago come up again as the Roadrunners (4-3) prepare to play the Owls (6-2) on Friday and again on Saturday in Houston. On both days, tipoff is at 2 p.m. at Tudor Fieldhouse.

In Czumbel, the Roadrunners have found themselves a player who doesn’t really like talking about himself, doesn’t necessarily have to shoot to affect the outcome of a game and as a result is endearing himself to coaches who love the attitude.

When he does shoot, the results speak with increasing volume.

Playing off more heavily guarded Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the combo guard from Verona, Italy, connects on 57.7 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from three, all while averaging 7.4 points.

“Just a great teammate,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “(He’s) a very, very tough, focused and conscientious player. Talk about every-day guys. He’s an every-day guy. He’s very, very tough physically. He tries to do exactly what you tell him.

“He’s a word-for-word guy. You tell him to go and pick on the wing at a certain angle, and he’s going to go and do it exactly the way you tell him to do it.”

Czumbel arrived in San Antonio in the summer of 2019 as a player UTSA coaches hoped would fill the void left by another Italian, former three-year starter Giovanni de Nicolao.

When De Nicolao broached the idea about leaving UTSA after his junior year to play pro ball in his native country, the Roadrunners started scanning the horizon.

It wasn’t long before they spied Czumbel, rising up in the ranks of the Italian junior circuit.

He had played for Team Italy in the FIBA U-18 European Championships, where he averaged 8.3 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds.

Rotnei Clark, one of the greatest scorers in Oklahoma high school basketball history, helped facilitate the Roadrunners’ contact with Czumbel.

A player once recruited by Henson, Clark was starting for a pro team in Italy at the time, with Czumbel backing him up.

“He guards me every day. He’s an unbelievable defender,” Clark told Henson on the phone one day. “He’s tough. He’s coachable.”

Replied Henson, “That’s what we want. That’s what we need.”

As a result, Czumbel visited UTSA in the spring of 2019 and committed, reportedly shunning Loyola Marymount and another school that he had visited.

Last year, he played 32 games and started 24. This year, he’s played in all seven of UTSA’s games and has started two. He’s averaging 23.9 minutes.

UTSA assistant coach Scott Thompson is most happy to see Czumbel make steady progress.

It’s also not surprising at all to Thompson that Czumbel, who will turn 21 on Jan. 11, doesn’t seem fazed by playing on the road at Oklahoma or Oregon State.

In Europe, Czumbel played a lot of games in second division games against older players.

“The European game, there’s a toughness to it,” Thompson said. “They’re all about team. They’re all about winning.”

After a rocky start that included two bad losses at UT Rio Grande Valley and Oklahoma, the Roadrunners have started to play better.

After nearly upsetting Oregon State on the road, they’ve won two straight, notching lopsided home victories over Our Lady of the Lake and Lamar.

Czumbel is encouraged.

He said he likes the way the team is getting more production out of more players. He said he also likes the way the Roadrunners utilized a break between the Lamar and the Rice games.

“I think we’re working really hard,” he said. “We still have a lot of improvement (to make) … But we’ve seen some improvements already.

“I think from the first few games, coach said this is the best offensive ranking we’ve had in five years. With Jhivvan and Keaton not shooting it really well, it doesn’t feel that way.

“It’s amazing how it is. Because, we’re getting to the line more. We have a lot of players that don’t play big minutes but still average high points. So I think we’re improving every day. We look good.”

Henson said Czumbel has earned his coaches’ and teammates’ respect.

“Right now he’s coming off the bench, but he’s a starter and he’s going to be in the game at key points in the game,” the coach said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. His teammates have a lot of confidence in him. He affects the game, even when he’s not scoring.”

And when he does shoot it? Often times, good things happen for the Roadrunners on those occasions, as well.

Just ask the Rice Owls.

UTSA makes a key defensive play late, defeats Rice, 90-88

The UTSA Roadrunners spent most of Saturday night trying unsuccessfully to keep the Rice Owls from scoring.

Led by guard Ako Adams, Rice was hitting from everywhere, building an 11-point advantage with 12:35 remaining.

But down the stretch, the Roadrunners kept playing.

And then they got the stop that they needed, forcing a turnover on an inbounds play and racing the other way for the winning basket and a 90-88 victory over the slumping Owls in Houston.

After Rice inbounded, UTSA’s Byron Frohnen came up with a loose ball and passed ahead to freshman Erik Czumbel, who out-ran the defense and drove for a layup with one second remaining.

In response, the Owls threw up a desperation shot from three quarters of the court but the clock had expired, giving a much-needed Conference USA road victory to the Roadrunners.

Records

UTSA 10-11, 4-4
Rice 9-13, 1-8

Crazy ending

UTSA had a chance to break a tie score with less than a minute remaining when Jhivvan Jackson misfired on a long three. With the game deadlocked at 88-88, Rice called time with 32 seconds left.

The play went to Ako Adams, who was unstoppable for most of the game. But as Adams drove to the bucket Keaton Wallace blocked the shot, sending it out of bounds. Rice had possession under its own goal.

At that point, Drew Peterson inbounded. Frohnen came up with it for the Roadrunners and sent it out in a winning transition play that Czumbel, a freshman, finished with a left-handed drive.

Road success — at last

With the victory, UTSA improved to a modest 2-10 in games played away from home this season, including 2-6 on the road and 1-4 in Conference USA.

By the numbers

UTSA — Jackson, the nation’s second-leading scorer, tallied 14 of his game-high 25 points in the second half. He also had seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. Keaton Wallace kept UTSA in the game in the first half with 14 of his 24 points, and he added four rebounds and three assists.

Czumbel scored 11 on four of four shooting, including three of three from 3-point distance. He scored eight points after halftime.

Rice — In a devastating shooting display, the Owls hit 11 of their 18 three-pointers in the second half. Adams hit six of them. Payton Moore and Quincy Olivari three apiece. All told, the Owls were 18 of 35 from distance. Adams led the Owls with 21 points, while Josh Parrish had 17.

Streaks

UTSA had lost its last five games away from home — a neutral-site loss to Oregon State in Houston and four C-USA road games at Florida Atlantic, Florida International, UTEP and North Texas.

The Roadrunners’ last victory outside of San Antonio came on Dec. 7 in non-conference play at Texas State.

Rice has lost five games in a row overall and nine of its last 10.

Czumbel could get start at point guard tonight for UTSA

UTSA guard Erik Czumbel is averaging 4.4 points in 12 minutes off the bench through five games. - photo by Joe Alexander

Erik Czumbel is averaging 4.4 points in 12 minutes off the bench through UTSA’s first five games. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Hoping to break through with their first victory of a new season, the UTSA Roadrunners are considering a change in the starting lineup on the eve of tonight’s home opener.

UTSA coach Steve Henson said Thursday he may start with freshman Erik Czumbel at point guard when the Roadrunners play the NAIA Wiley College Wildcats.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at the Convocation Center.

Asked if Czumbel could get his first start, Henson said it could happen.

“We haven’t made the full decision on that, but there’s a very good chance,” the coach said.

Surprisingly, the Roadrunners haven’t won any of their first five games.

Moreover, they couldn’t sustain much consistency in a road opener at Oklahoma, in three neutral-site games in Florida and, finally, in a 32-point road loss Monday at 15th-ranked Utah State.

“We haven’t played the way we expected to, the way we are capable of, against some really, really good opponents,” Henson said. “We expected to be a little further along than we were.

“(It was a) tough start. We got to figure some things out. We got to defend better. Got to get better possessions offensively. We got to settle into a (playing) rotation.

“It’s a combination of everything.”

Hopes were high coming into the season with the presence of scoring stars Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace and a cast of promising newcomers.

With those two 20-point scorers from last year returning, the Roadrunners were picked to finish second in Conference USA.

Readying for a three-game homestand, UTSA has yet to make much magic.

The Roadrunners come in shooting an unsightly 34 percent from the field as a team. They’re averaging only 63 points. Opponents are averaging 81, including 86.5 the past two games.

“We haven’t been making shots, and we haven’t been getting the stops we needed,” Jackson said. “We’re really ready to step it up and start winning some games.”

Henson hopes that a return to the home court will help.

He also hopes that by playing Czumbel more at the point, he can relieve Wallace from some of his ball-handling responsibilities and allow him to start finding open spaces and knocking down more threes.

“We got to get Erik in there a lot more, because that’s going to help Keaton and Jhivvan,” Henson said.

UTSA’s starting backcourt tonight could be Czumbel, with Jackson and Wallace on the wings.

In that case, senior Byron Frohnen likely moves to the power forward, with either Atem Bior or Luka Barisic at center.

For the past three years, the Roadrunners started Giovanni De Nicolao at the point, and he emerged as a steady passer and ball handler who didn’t shoot much unless a play broke down.

He was solid defensively.

Czumbel has also exhibited strong defensive capabilities, but on offense, he has proven to be more of a shooter than a facilitator — at least, to this point.

The 6-3 guard from Italy, averaging 4.4 points in 12 minutes through five games, has has hit 8 of 13 from the field and 5 of 9 from three.

He has four assists and four turnovers.