Texas State players and fans celebrate a 69-68 victory Saturday afternoon at the UTSA Convocation Center.
An impromptu party materialized behind the visitors’ bench at the UTSA Convocation Center late Saturday afternoon.
For fans of the Texas State Bobcats, the celebration likely carried on late into the night following a pulsating 69-68 victory over the Roadrunners.
As for Texas State coach Danny Kaspar, he had other plans.
“I’ll sleep better tonight,” he said.
At one juncture near the end of the game, Kaspar’s team seemed to be coming unglued.
It committed a turnover in front of the Texas State bench, and with 24 seconds remaining, UTSA’s Jhivvan Jackson sank two free throws to give the Roadrunners a 68-65 lead.
Not to be denied, the Bobcats answered with 13 seconds left on a clutch, game-tying, three-point shot from the top of the arc by guard Nijal Pearson.
UTSA, in response, rushed it upcourt with its own star on the dribble.
Jackson, on the right wing, created separation from a defender with a cross-over dribble, but his three-point jumper for the lead rimmed out.
“A shot I take hundreds of times every day,” Jackson lamented.
As for the rebound, UTSA’s Byron Frohnen appeared to get his hands on it, but he lost control, and it caromed off to the side, in front of the Roadrunners’ bench.
From there, Texas State’s Jaylen Shead secured it and started his dribble upcourt.
Suddenly, UTSA’s Keaton Wallace confronted Shead, grabbing at the ball, as a referee whistled him for a foul in front of the UTSA bench.
After a clock re-set, Shead hit the first free throw for the final point of the game with 0.9 seconds left.
Remembering the moment when he heard victory cheers from the Texas State fans, Kaspar admitted that it felt good. He also said he felt fortunate to win, under the circumstances.
In discussing the final, frantic seconds, the coach said, “We got to hit a three to win the game, probably. We hit it. They’re going to have a shot to win the game. They don’t (make it), and we get a foul out of it.
“So, I got to go to church tomorrow and say thank you.”
Texas State 7-1
The I-35 rivalry
San Marcos-based Texas State, from the Sun Belt Conference, broke a two-game losing streak in the series to UTSA. The Bobcats earned a measure of redemption after blowing a late nine-point lead in a one-point loss last year at home. UTSA, from Conference USA, still leads the overall series, 35-25.
Texas State — Nijal Pearson, 26 points on 10 of 21 shooting, including 5 threes. Also seven rebounds, a block and a steal. Alex Peacock, 15 points on 5 of 8 shooting. Alonzo Sule, eight points off the bench, on 3 of 6 from the field.
UTSA — Jackson, 22 points on 6 of 18 shooting. He hit 5 of 11 from three. Keaton Wallace, 19 points. Giovanni De Nicolao, 13.
Texas State’s Nijal Pearson steps back and drills a three to tie the game with 13 seconds left.
Pearson, a 6-foot-5 junior from Beaumont Central, continues to play at a high level. He has scored 33, 25 and 26 points in his last three games, respectively.
In torching the Roadrunners, he scored in a variety of ways. On a few of his three-pointers, Pearson stepped back and swished long balls with a hand in his face.
One of his buckets in the first half came on a sweet Euro-step move, when he twisted through defenders and sank a layup (see video below).
Establishing an identity
UTSA had plenty of chances to take charge of the game but shot poorly from the field, hitting only 36.4 percent for the game, including 9 of 25 in the first half and 11 of 30 in the second half.
“We’re taking some baby steps,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “But we got a lot of work to do if we’re going to be a really, really good team. I think we’ve got the pieces to do that.
“We’ve still got to figure out what our identity is going to be. We’re not playing real, real fast. We’re not defending at a real high level. We’re kind of average in a lot of areas right now.
“If we’re going to be a really good team, we need to establish an identity.”
UTSA point guard Giovanni De Nicolao hits a wild runner in the opening minute Saturday against Texas State.
Lamenting the late miss
UTSA guard Jhivvan Jackson, on his three-point shot that rimmed out: “It’s a shot I take hundreds of times every day. I thought it was a great shot, too, and the team wanted me to take it. I took it. It just didn’t fall.”
Henson seemed to think that Wallace was overly aggressive on the play the resulted in the late whistle, even though calls like that are often times not called at all.
“He went and grabbed the ball with two hands,” Henson said. “There was clearly contact there. It was right in front of me. I didn’t get a great look at it.
“It’s the kind of play, you have to let it go. As much as he wanted to go get the basketball, kinda had to let that one go.”
Texas State guard Nijal Pearson drives around Rice’s Chris Mullins Wednesday night in San Marcos. — Courtesy photo by Brooke Adams
SAN MARCOS — Deep down inside, Texas State shooting guard Nijal Pearson always knew he could play at a high level in NCAA Division I basketball.
“I always figured it would come in due time,” the 6-foot-5 junior said Friday afternoon.
Even though Pearson didn’t have the total skill package at Beaumont Central High School, Texas State coach Danny Kaspar said he could see the potential.
“He’s like some of my players at Stephen F. Austin,” the coach said. “They weren’t recruited very hard, and the knock on them was, they were not great shooters.”
On the other hand, Kaspar said he always sees intangibles in some young men, particularly those who excel both in academics and athletics.
He said he tells them honestly that they will need to work on their offense.
“You just knew (Pearson) would do it,” Kaspar said. “He was in, I want to say, the top ten (academically) in his (high school graduating) class. He’s one of our best students here. So, he just competes in every way, shape or form. In the classroom. On the court.
“(He) is very much a competitor. You challenge him about getting in the gym and putting up 400 and 500 shots a day, and he responds.”
The work has paid off for Pearson, who leads the Bobcats in scoring at 21 points per game coming into a weekend road test against the UTSA Roadrunners.
Pearson has emerged as the story of the season so far for Texas State (6-1) as it prepares to play UTSA (2-5) on Saturday afternoon at the Convocation Center.
Tipoff is at 3 p.m.
The Bobcats have won four straight, including three last week at the Portland Classic in Oregon and again Wednesday night at home against Rice.
Pearson scored a career-high 33 in the finale against the Portland Pilots, and then added 25 for good measure in a 74-60 victory over the Owls.
“We’re just having fun playing together, sharing the ball and playing defense,” he said. “For the most part, we figured we were a pretty good team. We knew in the summer time. So, I wouldn’t say we are really high right now. Basically, we’re doing what we’re expected to do.”
Beating UTSA is important to Pearson, who is 0-2 in his career against the Roadrunners.
“It’s a rivalry game,” he said. “I’m excited about playing in it. I don’t think I’ve made my mark in a UTSA-Texas State game yet, so, I’m excited that I get a chance to do that tomorrow. I’m anxious to play.”
Last year’s loss still stings a bit, because UTSA rallied in the last 70 seconds to erase a nine-point deficit and win, 79-78.
Asked what he remembers about last year, he shrugged and said simply, just that the Bobcats lost.
Because of a lock-down defense yielding only 37 percent shooting per game, Texas State would seem to have a better chance this year against the Roadrunners, who have struggled some offensively.
Pearson’s offense, meanwhile, has been consistently good.
He is shooting 52.9 percent from the field, including 53.2 percent from the three-point line. On top of that, he’s averaging 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals.
Pearson is not the same player that shot 43 percent as a freshman and 39 percent as a sophomore.
“I work hard on my game,” he said. “I just kept working. I knew eventually it was going to happen. I just didn’t know when … But, I’m just staying with it. (I’m trying to) focus, letting the game come to me, having fun out there.”