Beating the blues: UTSA whips North Texas to snap three-game skid

UTSA's Jhivvan Jackson celebrates with teammate Jaja Sanni after the Roadrunners' 77-69 victory over North Texas on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA’s Jhivvan Jackson celebrates with teammate Jaja Sanni after the Roadrunners’ 77-69 victory over North Texas. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Another bout with the basketball blues loomed for the UTSA Roadrunners.

One more week with a bad feeling in the pit of the stomach, followed by grinding practices and lingering questions about the viability of the ball club.

Trailing by one point at home against the North Texas Mean Green with 3:38 remaining, the Roadrunners were on the brink of getting swept in a two-game series for the second week in a row.

It didn’t happen. In perhaps a pivotal moment in their season, they deployed a small lineup, executed well on both ends of the floor and claimed a 77-69 victory Saturday over the Mean Green for their first win in Conference USA.

UTSA center Jacob Germany throws down a dunk with 2:18 left to give UTSA a 69-65 lead in a 77-69 victory over North Texas on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA center Jacob Germany throws down a dunk with 2:18 left to give UTSA a 69-65 lead. – Photo by Joe Alexander

“It was great,” UTSA guard Keaton Wallace said. “We had guys making good plays. We were knocking down shots and getting stops. All the way down to the end.

“Those are the type of games that feel good, that you worked really hard for. That was a good victory right there.”

Guard Jhivvan Jackson led the way with 31 points, including 26 in the second half. He also had six rebounds. Center Jacob Germany scored 16 and Wallace 14. Javion Hamlet had 18 for the Mean Green, but he was held in check with 5 of 14 shooting. As a team, the Mean Green hit only 38 percent, well below their season average of 49.5.

A bumpy ride

Despite an erratic summer caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, UTSA entered the season feeling good about its chances. But ever since games got underway in the last week of November, it’s been a bumpy ride. The team endured a couple of ugly losses at UT Rio Grande Valley and Oklahoma, and then rebounded with two straight victories leading into the C-USA phase of the schedule.

Last week in Houston against the Rice Owls, the Roadrunners gave up a combined 179 points and lost twice.

Returning home, they played better on the defensive end Friday night but watched at the end of the game as the Mean Green pulled out a 77-70 victory. With the decision, UTSA dropped to 0-3 in conference for the first time in the Steve Henson coaching era.

UTSA coach Steve Henson talks to an official after a foul called on the Roadrunners in the final minutes of their 77-69 victory over North Texas on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson talks to an official after a foul called on the Roadrunners in the final minutes. Henson went with a four-guard lineup down the stretch. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Moreover, the Roadrunners didn’t have much time to adjust for Game 2 against the defending C-USA champions. They were back on the court early Saturday morning for a shootaround and then reported to the arena a few hours later for a 3 p.m. start. None of it mattered.

Trailing by three at intermission, UTSA outscored North Texas 46-35 in the second half, including 15-6 in the final three minutes, to make something of a statement. So, instead of traveling winless in conference to Louisiana Tech next week, the Roadrunners (5-6, 1-3) they will travel with some confidence.

Making progress

“It’s really big,” Henson said. “In this context, it feels like it’s more than one game, simply because of the nature of it. You go on the road, lose two to Rice. Looking ahead, you see North Texas on the schedule. Then you see LA Tech on the schedule. It was pretty important. You know, LA Tech’s loaded. We understand that.

“It was very, very important (to win today). It reinforced what we’ve been telling them. We think we’re making progress.”

Keaton Wallace. UTSA beat North Texas 77-69 in a Conference USA game on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Keaton Wallace hit two three-point buckets in the Roadrunners’ closing run. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Henson paused to consider the statistics sheet, particularly the second-half numbers. He liked what he saw.

“Second-half field goal percentage for them — 30 percent,” he said. “Second-half field goal percentage for us — 60 percent … That gives us something to hang our hat on.”

Playing small ball

With the teams trading runs for most of the second half, North Texas got into foul trouble, sat down big man Zachary Simmons and went with a smaller lineup. Henson answered by going small himself, using Jhivvan Jackson, Erik Czumbel, Jordan Ivy-Curry and Wallace, along with either Phoenix Ford or Jacob Germany.

The Roadrunners clicked. In the final three minutes, Ivy-Curry found Germany rolling to the rim and lobbed it up high for a dunk. Wallace hit a couple of threes. Jackson knocked down three of four free throws.

Records

UTSA 5-6, 1-3
North Texas 5-5, 1-1

Coming up

UTSA at Louisiana Tech, Friday, 6:30 p.m.
UTSA at Louisiana Tech, Saturday, 6 p.m.


UTSA’s Jhivvan Jackson, the school’s all-time leading scorer, leaps to block a shot by North Texas guard JJ Murray midway through the second half. Jackson played all 40 minutes of games Friday night and Saturday afternoon. He scored 31 points Saturday, finishing his weekend’s work with 57.

Sorting through a few issues before North Texas-UTSA, Part II

Jhivvan Jackson. UTSA lost to North Texas 77-70 in Conference USA action on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Weaving his way through traffic, pulling up for floaters or hitting from deep, Jhivvan Jackson scored 26 points in 40 minutes Friday night. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Good afternoon, all.

I wanted to drop a few opinions here in the lead-up to North Texas-UTSA, Part II. The Mean Green defeated the Roadrunners 77-70 in Game 1 of a two-game, Conference USA series Friday night at the Convocation Center. The two ball clubs meet again today, in the same arena, on UTSA’s home floor. Tipoff is at 3 p.m.

First of all, North Texas looks like a team capable of winning another championship. The Mean Green have everything. A point guard who runs the show. Players who can pass it and catch it. Players who are smart and know what to do when they’re under pressure. Players who defend aggressively. Point guard Javion Hamlet? He’s a handful. Forwards Thomas Bell and Zachary Simmons? I don’t remember them being game-changers last season, but they were Friday night.

Keaton Wallace had 12 points in the second half and 14 for the game for UTSA in Friday's Conference USA loss to North Texas at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Keaton Wallace

Next, I go back and forth between notions that the Roadrunners can be a good team this year, or, alternately, that they lack the right pieces in place to make a serious run in March. When my my thoughts drift to the second part of that notion, I think, what are they missing? Well, maybe they need a creative point guard, a distributor, an assertive force who can take over a game without shooting.

In Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace and Erik Czumbel, they have three really talented combo guards. Jackson and Wallace are at their best when they can roam the perimeter for catch-and-shoot opportunities. The faster the pace, the better.

Wallace and Czumbel are excellent defensively. But the offense tends to bog down when either runs the point for too long. Jackson is the best distributor and is the most creative of the three on the dribble. But if he brings it up time after time, his effectiveness as one of the nation’s best scorers decreases.

Alternately, I tend to think that the Roadrunners may, in time, work all this out in the coming weeks. Maybe they’ll mesh all their talents together and rip off a series of victories. It has a chance to happen, I think, if a couple of things happen. First, I’d like to see Jackson start at an off-guard position as he did Friday night. Give him the green light to shoot until he gets hot. Same with Wallace.

Both are smart enough players to be able to keep their teammates involved. But the team is built on their talents. Let them go to work. As for Czumbel, he’s starting to get more aggressive when he brings the ball up or when he runs the half court offense. Just give him some time to grow.

Next, they’ll be instantly better on defense when Cedrick Alley, Jr., returns to full speed. Right now, he’s limited with a groin injury. Remember, last week at Rice, Alley enjoyed a great first half before the groin tightened up on him. Get him back in the flow, and he could become a force as a two-way player, an aggressive defender and rebounder, and also one who can also knock down shots.

Today, the Mean Green probably have the edge. Jackson played 40 minutes Friday night. Weaving his way through traffic, finding open spaces, rising up for clever shots in the mid-range, UTSA’s all-time scoring leader was as good as he’s ever been. It may be too much to ask him to do that again in 18 hours. So, others will need to play well. But, as mentioned, North Texas looks like it’s built of championship timber. UTSA is still building.

UTSA trying to find a spark against North Texas

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

Jhivvan Jackson has averaged 16 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Roadrunners. But he says he is ‘struggling’ with his shot. — Photo by Joe Alexander

More than a few questions linger for the UTSA Roadrunners as they prepare to host the defending Conference USA champion North Texas Mean Green on Friday night.

After losing two games to open C-USA play last week at Rice, can they finally find some consistency to get on a hot streak?

Keaton Wallace scored 12 points as UTSA beat Lamar 88-66 on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Keaton Wallace enters a two-game series against North Texas averaging 13.2 points. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Can they find it with Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace scoring a combined 29.5 points per game, roughly two thirds of their output from last year?

In 2019-20, the dynamic twosome was the highest scoring backcourt in the nation, averaging a combined 45.6. So, yes, it probably would help if they could get closer to that number.

But even if they can regain the magic in a two-game series against North Texas, will it be enough to beat a team that won 20 games last year?

Against UTSA (4-5), Grant McCasland-coached North Texas (4-4) hopes to get off to a fast start in an effort to repeat its 14-4 run through the conference a year ago.

“They won the league last year and they got a lot of those guys back,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “The challenges they presented last year are here again.”

The talented Mean Green play a methodical pace on offense and then, on the other end, they try to force poor possessions by cutting off passing lanes and keeping the ball on one side of the floor.

Anchored by a couple of 6-foot-10 post players, North Texas used the approach to hammer UTSA by 20 points last year in Denton.

“We’re excited to play them,” Jackson said. “I think everybody wants that challenge to play the conference champions. So, we’re getting ready for them. They’re going to come over here, and they’re going to get our best.”

Jackson poured in 37 and Wallace had 24 last year in Denton.

But UTSA is, by design, a different team this season, with more balance to foster more sustained success. Jackson averages 16.3, Wallace 13.2 and center Jacob Germany 10.3.

Forward Eric Parrish (8) and back-up post Luka Barisic (7.3) are also involved in a fast-paced attack.

“I mean, everybody’s making plays,” Jackson said. “Kea, he’s starting to get it going. We got Luka making shots. We got Jacob. He’s scoring at a high percentage.

“We got EZ (Erik) Czumbel. He’s shooting almost 50 percent from the three-point line. We got Juice (Jordan Ivy-Curry), who comes in and gives us a stretch of points and hustle plays.

Added Jackson: “I think I’m doing a great job, as well, just looking for people. I mean, I think everybody is kind of getting the shot that they want. We just got to defend better.”

The Owls beat the Roadrunners 95-86 and 84-69 last week in Houston.

Though defense continues to be the focus for UTSA this year, the Roadrunners likely need to get much better shooting out of their best two players if they want to make a run at the upper level of the C-USA Western Division.

Jackson (43.6 percent from the field, 28.3 from three) and Wallace (40.2 and 31) are much better shooters than those numbers would indicate.

“I’m struggling offensively,” Jackson said. “But I’m getting my teammates open. Getting them some good looks. I’m running the point. So, running a lot of the plays for my teammates.

“I’m good, you know. I’m going to get on my rhythm. I’m not really stressed about that. We just focusing on getting better on defense.”

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA wanted to emphasize defense on Friday in a 91-62 victory over Sul Ross State at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

The status of injured Cedrick Alley Jr. is in question. Alley sat out last Saturday at Rice. — Photo by Joe Alexander

A victory would help to smooth out most problems, and Wallace said he’s confident that the Roadrunners can get that done against a team that will be playing its conference opener.

“They got us pretty good last year,” he said. “We scored a lot of points … We couldn’t stop them.

“We going to make some small tweaks to our game on defense, and they’re going to translate to (this) game.”

North Texas, scheduled to tip off C-USA play last week in Alabama at UAB, had its openers postponed because of virus issues with the Blazers.

Records

North Texas 4-4, 0-0
UTSA 4-5, 0-2

Coming up

North Texas at UTSA, Friday, 6 p.m.
North Texas at UTSA, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Alley’s status uncertain as UTSA prepares for North Texas

The status of injured UTSA forward Cedrick Alley, Jr., is uncertain for Friday’s home game against the North Texas Mean Green.

“He’s pretty sore,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said on a zoom call with reporters Wednesday.

Henson said Alley has spent “a lot of time” with the training staff as the Roadrunners resumed practice this week following a pair of losses at Rice last weekend.

Alley, a starter at power forward, fueled an 11-2 UTSA run late in the first half in Game 1 of the two-game series against Rice in Houston last Friday.

In one sequence, he had a steal and then hit a 3-pointer as UTSA rolled to a 48-42 intermission lead.

For the game, Alley hit 5 of 11 from the field and scored a season-high 15 points in a 95-86 loss for the Roadrunners.

He aggravated his groin during the game, Henson said. Subsequently, Alley warmed up Saturday but wasn’t able to play in Game 2 when Rice knocked off UTSA, 84-69.

UTSA has been watching him closely this week as it prepares to host North Texas, the defending Conference USA champions.

“Right now I don’t know what he’ll be able to do (Thursday) or Friday,” Henson said.

Henson said he’s hopeful that Alley’s showing at Rice is a glimpse of what he can produce as the 18-game C-USA schedule continues.

Coming up

North Texas at UTSA, Friday, 6 p.m.
North Texas at UTSA, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Records

North Texas 4-4, 0-0
UTSA 4-5, 0-2

UTSA knocks off North Texas on Jackson’s spinning winner


UTSA guard Jhivvan Jackson hits a wild shot for the game winner Saturday afternoon against North Texas as the Roadrunners take over first place in Conference USA.

As UTSA basketball coach Steve Henson concluded his post-game interview Saturday afternoon, someone told him that the Kansas City Chiefs were winning in their NFL playoff game against Indianapolis.

“Wow,” the Kansas native said, smiling as he stepped away from a gaggle or reporters. “The day just keeps getting better.”

As Henson kept walking, he kept talking.

“I got a Whataburger ticket in my pocket,” he added, still smiling.

And then he continued on, with his voice trailing off, trying to take in the feeling of being the coach of the first-place team in Conference USA.

UTSA took over the top spot in dramatic style, as guard Jhivvan Jackson sank a spinning, off-balance shot from 17 feet with 1.6 seconds left.

On the last play, North Texas executed a three-quarter, length-of-the-court pass to 6-10 center Zachary Simmons, who spun and hoisted a 16 footer that was off the mark as time expired.

After the miss, UTSA players charged off the bench to celebrate their seventh straight victory in front of an announced crowd of 1,192.

The win was sweet on a number of levels, but, most importantly, it lifted the Roadrunners into the top spot in the Conference USA standings.

So, how does it feel to be in first, coach?

“Got a nice ring to it,” Henson said. “Our guys are pretty excited. But we know we haven’t done enough yet. Really, we’re 4-0. We’ve played three home games. We’ve gone on the road and won once.

“If we’re going to do something special, we really have just gotten started.”

On the last offensive possession, the Roadrunners pitched the ball around a few times and then got it to Jackson in isolation against Jorden Duffy on the right side.

Jackson, one of the most electric offensive players in the conference, slipped when he first tried to make a move, and then he bobbled the ball.

Grabbing it out of the air, the sophomore executed a spin move toward the baseline and then calmly sank a one-hander from about 17 feet.

Replays showed Jackson’s teammate, Byron Frohnen, with a look of disbelief under the basket as the ball hit the bottom of the net.

“We just wanted to get him the ball,” Henson said. “He didn’t have a very good first half. He got a little frustrated. (He) thought he was getting fouled and didn’t deal with it very well.

“But (he’s) a competitive guy. We knew we wanted to get him the ball … with a chance to win it or go to overtime.

“(We) thought he might draw a foul. He didn’t. He almost lost his balance. Got it back, and did what great players do.”

Records

North Texas 16-2, 4-1
UTSA 10-7, 4-0


North Texas’ Jorden Duffy misses out of the corner. Zachary Simmons rebounds, and then Roosevelt Smart hits a three to tie with 50 seconds left. In the end, UTSA held on to snap the Mean Green’s eight-game winning streak.

Jackson: ‘I had to improvise’

When Jhivvan Jackson arrived at UTSA a few years ago, at least one pundit on social media compared him to former NBA star Allen Iverson.

Even though it’s hard to live up to that hype, Jackson can at least lay claim to one of the most remarkable clutch shots in recent school history.

“I tried to shoot a jab (step), but I slipped and had to improvise a little,” Jackson said. “It just went in. I think it was payback for that play I missed right before that.”

With the game tied 74-74, Jackson missed a jumper that was rebounded by Frohnen. UTSA promptly called time out with 13 seconds left to set up the last possession.

Jackson hit the shot, ending North Texas’ eight-game winning streak.

“Great game,” he said. “Practices have been helping us a lot. We’ve been really taking practice serious, and it’s been translating to the game.

“We played great defense on their point guard, (Ryan) Woolridge. Defensively, it was a great game. That’s what got us the win.”

Individuals

North Texas — Roosevelt Smart, 18 points, five three-pointers. Ryan Woolridge, 17 points, 9 rebounds. Jorden Duffy, 15 points. Zachary Simmoons, 12 points, 8 rebounds.

UTSA — Jhivvan Jackson, 17 points, 6 of 18 shooting. Nick Allen, 16 points, 7 rebounds. Keaton Wallace, 11 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals. Giovanni De Nicolao, 10 points, 5 rebounds.

Taking control

Just as the Mean Green pulled to within three with 11:51 remaining on a driving layup by Smart, the Roadrunners answered with one of their best stretches of play this season, outscoring the visitors 20-13 over the next six minutes.

The Roadrunners started to attack the basket, play after play, either getting layups or free throws. UTSA hit four straight layups at one juncture and then De Nicolao buried a three from the corner. When Jackson hit a free throw with 5:29 to play, UTSA had hiked the lead to 67-57.

Mounting a comeback

Not to be outdone, North Texas constructed a 14-4 run that tied the game, 71-71, with 2:40 remaining. Smart capped the streak by nailing a three from the top of the circle.


UTSA guard Keaton Wallace buries a three-pointer out of the corner in the first half Saturday against North Texas.

First-half highlights

Freshman Adokiye Iyaye energized fans with a three-pointer on the last play of the first half, lifting the Roadrunners to a 33-27 lead.

At intermission, Allen led UTSA in scoring with 9 points, and Keaton Wallace and Iyaye had 7. Woolridge had 8 and Duffy 7 for North Texas.


UTSA freshman Adokiye Iyaye scores a layup on a back cut in the first half against the North Texas Mean Green.

Notebook

UTSA broke a four-game losing streak to North Texas in the series, which stretched back over the past three seasons. Meaning, it was the first win over the in-state rivals for the current coaching staff and its core of veteran players. The Roadrunners’ last win against the Mean Green came on March 7, 2015, in a 69-68 victory at UTSA.

Hype is building for North Texas-UTSA showdown

When UTSA basketball players ran through drills in practice on Friday afternoon, they’d look up to see a television camera in their face.

It was at least the second time this week that a local TV station dispatched a crew to cover a workout.

Not a game, mind you. A practice. And not in March, either. In the second week of January.

Roadrunners coach Steve Henson said he welcomes the attention.

“Hey that’s important for our program,” he said.

It’s not surprising that the Roadrunners are starting to attract notice.

After all, first place in Conference USA is on the line Saturday at 3 p.m. when the surging North Texas Mean Green pay a visit to the UTSA Convocation Center.

North Texas is 16-1 and is riding an eight-game winning streak. Perhaps more compelling, UTSA is 9-7 with six victories in a row, after starting the season at 0-5.

“It’s no secret we didn’t start the season real well,” Henson said. “Our schedule was tough early. We weren’t playing great. But now we are. Nine (wins) out of 11 (games). Six in a row. We hope there’s some buzz around the program.”

Having North Texas in the house on a Saturday afternoon certainly helps.

Games between the two squads are usually pretty intriguing, anyway, but this year it’s different.

This year, North Texas is 4-0 and sitting atop the C-USA standings, while UTSA trails in second at 3-0.

UTSA guard Keaton Wallace said it would mean a lot on a number of levels to win and take over first place.

First, if the Roadrunners can win, they would tie a 30-year-old school record and would become only the second team in school history to open conference play at 4-0.

“That,” Wallace said, “would be big time.”

In addition, it would also feel good for players to beat an in-state rival that has won four in a row in the head-to-head series against the Roadrunners.

Last year, the Mean Green erased a 13-point deficit and beat the Roadrunners 72-71 at the Convocation Center.

Later, North Texas routed UTSA 80-62 at Denton, in the first game after Roadrunners guard Jhivvan Jackson was knocked out for the season with a knee injury.

The game in San Antonio stands out as the most emotional of the two.

At the end, with UTSA trailing by the eventual final score, UTSA’s Giovanni De Nicolao raced the length of the court on the dribble, stretched out for a layup in traffic and saw it skip off the rim.

“We know they got us last year,” Wallace said. “We expect them to come out hard and ready to play. We got to protect home court.”

Notable

Nick Allen hit career highs in both points (20) and three-pointers (four) against Rice Thursday night. De Nicolao’s 19 points were a season high. The Roadrunners hammered the Owls, 95-79, establishing team season highs in points, field goal percentage (49.3) and three-pointers made (12) against Division I competition.

North Texas survived a challenge from UTEP Thursday night in El Paso, winning 58-51. Redshirt freshman guard Umoja Gibson played well off the bench with 13 points and seven rebounds. Roosevelt Smart scored 13, Michael Miller had 11 and 6-foot-10 Zachary Simmons contributed 10 points and four rebounds.