Mama Mia! UTSA routs Rice, 95-79, for sixth straight victory

Junior guard Giovanni De Nicolao had 19 points and 7 assists in UTSA's 95-79 Conference USA victory over Rice on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Junior guard Giovanni De Nicolao broke out of a shooting slump by scoring a season-high 19 points, to go along with 7 assists, in a 16-point victory against Rice. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The UTSA Roadrunners cranked up a high-energy offense Thursday night, rolling past the Rice Owls, 95-79, for their sixth straight win.

UTSA’s winning streak is the team’s longest in three years under Coach Steve Henson and the longest overall since 2010-11, when the program last qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

In addition, the Roadrunners improved to 3-0 in conference for the first time since 1990-91, when they won the Trans America Athletic Conference regular-season crown.

Only one team in school history started 4-0, and it happened 30 years ago in 1988-89, also in the TAAC.

UTSA will try to match that start on Saturday night when it hosts the North Texas Mean Green in a game between in-state rivals, both undefeated in Conference USA.

North Texas improved to 16-1 and 4-0 in C-USA after winning 58-51 on the road at UTEP.

Against the Owls, Jhivvan Jackson led the Roadrunners with 24 points, and Nick Allen had 20. Giovanni De Nicolao produced 19, while Keaton Wallace had 16.

Allen and De Nicolao hit individual season highs in scoring on a night when the Roadrunners also notched the most points in a game this year against a Division I program.

Rice men's basketball coach Scott Perra. - photo by Joe Alexander

Rice coach Scott Pera. – Photo by Joe Alexander

In the locker room afterward, Henson congratulated the players on reaching a goal of making fewer than 10 turnovers — they had eight.

But perhaps the story of the night indiviually was De Nicolao, a junior guard from Italy, who entered the game shooting 31 percent from the field and 10.9 percent (3 of 29) on three pointers.

“Finally,” De Nicolao said. “Lately I haven’t been shooting well. My three (point) percent is awful. Finally I got some shots (to go in).”

De Nicolao hit 7 of 13 from the field and 3 of 6 from long distance. On one of his threes in the second half, UTSA fans were chanting, “Mama Mia,” in a salute to his Italian heritage.

He also saw some fans giving him an Italian hand gesture, with the thumb pressed against fingers, which De Nicolao also enjoyed.

“I mean, everybody thinks it’s something in Italian,” he said, making the gesture for emphasis during his post-game interview with reporters. “This means, like, ‘What are you doing?’ in Italian. Like when you drive, and somebody cuts you off, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’

“It doesn’t really mean anything. But everyone in America thinks it’s something. I don’t know. It’s fun. I like it.”

Records

UTSA 9-7, 3-0
Rice 7-10, 2-2


Giovanni De Nicolao and Keaton Wallace nail three-point baskets on consecutive possessions late in the first half.

First half

The Roadrunners unleashed a fast-paced offense and multiple shooters en route to a 46-37 lead at the intermission.

It was UTSA’s highest-scoring half since Dec. 17 when they hit for 56 against NAIA Bethany, Kansas.

De Nicolao had perhaps his best offensive half of the season with 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting, including 2-for-2 on three-pointers.

Allen also touched the ball frequently and scored 10, hitting 4 of 8 shots. Wallace added 10 and Jackson eight.

Rice leaders

Quentin Millora-Brown, 14 points, on 7 of 9 shooting, 9 rebounds. Chrs Mullins, 14 points. Ako Adams, 10. Trey Murphy III, 10.

Rice entered the game with some momentum, having won back-to-back games at home against Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.

Notable

The record for the longest winning streak in school history? It’s 13 games, which was established in 1983-84, in the third year of the program.

Quotable

Asked whether UTSA could score 95 every night, Henson said, “Well, there were some reasons for it that I was excited about. The 95 points didn’t really mean anything. But the limited turnovers — we had been talking about that for weeks and weeks … We got a team that plays fast and aggressively, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got to turn the ball over. So, finally, tonight was the night (with eight, and 22 assists).”


UTSA sophomore Jhivvan Jackson, who entered the night as the second-leading scorer in C-USA, hits a jumper late in the second half over Rice big man Jack Williams. Jackson sank 9 of 23 from the field, 3 of 10 from three and 3 of 3 on free throws.

Forward Nick Allen steps up on offense for streaking UTSA

Nick Allen. UTSA beat Southeastern Oklahoma State 70-67 on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Nick Allen has averaged 11.2 points on 55 percent shooting in UTSA’s last five games.

Winners of five games in a row, the UTSA Roadrunners continue to tweak their offensive execution in hopes of getting more players involved, and senior forward Nick Allen has stepped up to answer the call.

Allen has averaged 11.2 points on 55 percent shooting during the streak, leading into tonight’s Conference USA home test against the Rice Owls.

Highlighting UTSA’s longest streak in seven years, Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace have led the way, playing at a high level almost every night.

But Allen, a senior from Arizona, has emerged as a third-option threat by knocking down 23 shots in 42 attempts combined against Bethany, Kansas; Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Southeastern Oklahoma State and UTEP (twice).

It’s been a major change in the offense from earlier in the season when, at times, the Roadrunners seemed to rely too much on their two standouts.

“That goes back to our attention to detail, executing on the offensive side,” Allen said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, this is what we’re looking for.’ You know, it’s like, ‘You got to run the plays correctly.’ And if you run them correctly, there’s a lot of options to score.”

Coming off two victories over the Miners to open conference play, UTSA continued work earlier this week on the offensive nitty gritty to prepare for home games tonight against Rice and Saturday against the North Texas Mean Green.

“We keep talking about getting sharper and getting better shots and limiting turnovers,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “Coming off two games in conference where we had 10 one night and 12 the next, it’s closer. Single digits would be fantastic.

“We got to all be on the same page what a good possession looks like.

“With scorers like Jhivvan and Keaton, there (are) going to be a lot of quick shots. But we also need good possessions where we get the ball side to side, get paint touches. We needed to spend a lot of time on that (this week).”

In other words, the Roadrunners are trying to expand their repertoire of threats.

For UTSA to win consistently, the team surely will need more offense from Allen, Byron Frohnen, Giovanni De Nicolao — who all start — and also from bench players like Adokiye Iyaye and Atem Bior.

In Allen’s opinion, the Roadrunners at times this season have seemed “funneled in on one” option at times. Now, he said, it seems as if the offensive sets are producing much more variety.

“We kind of let the offense breathe a little bit,” Allen said. “It’s opening up a lot of stuff for a lot of people. It’s good. I think that’s where it’s coming from.”

Notable

Allen’s increased production on offense may be related to simple physics. The 6-8 forward said he has trimmed down to 227 pounds — about eight pounds under his opening-day weight.

“I started off the season right around 235 and shaved a couple of pounds off,” Allen said. “I feel a little bit better. It’s weird, you know, I didn’t think I would notice it as much.

“But after shaving a little weight, I feel a little bit more mobile. I can move a little bit better now.”

Surprising Rice Owls to test UTSA at the Convocation Center

The Rice Owls might be the surprise team of Conference USA through the first week of league play.

Coming off a 7-24 season a year ago, the Owls have posted a 7-9 record with a 2-1 mark in C-USA leading into Thursday night’s road test at UTSA.

Rice, starting three freshmen, played beyond expectations last week in home victories over Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.

“Those are good wins for them,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “And they played very well in the (conference opener) against North Texas, who is playing as well as anybody in our league, so I think they’re feeling great about what they’re doing.”

Coach Steve Henson (left) and assistant Mike Peck confer during a timeout last week against UTEP. – Photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA beat Rice twice in 2017-18, but Henson said he sees more talent on the Owls this year.

“They’ve got a bunch of new guys and a few returners,” Henson said, “and the returners are playing much better. So they’re mixing it nice. They’ve got enough pieces. They’ve got good shooters, enough size and enough quickness to be a good team every night.

“Certainly (they) probably surprised some people, but when you look at them on film, they’re pretty legit.”

Freshman guard Chris Mullins, from Mansfield Timberview, averages 12.9 points to lead four Rice players in double figures.

Other key players for second-year coach Scott Pera include junior guard Ako Adams, senior forward Jack Williams and junior forward Robert Martin, who comes off the bench.

Rice closed out the game against Louisiana Tech on Saturday in Houston with a 17-4 run in the final 4:26, securing a 78-66 victory.

Louisiana Tech came into the game at 11-4.

“One of the things that was a defining thing in this game was consistency, especially defensively,” Pera said after the game. “I’m just really proud of our kids how they dug in, again, in the second half.”

Records

Rice 7-9, 2-1
UTSA 8-7, 2-0

Notable

The Roadrunners are on a five-game winning streak, their longest since 2011-12. A victory against Rice would equal the 2010-11 team’s six straight victories. UTSA is looking for its first 3-0 start in conference since 1990-91. UTSA beat UTEP twice last week, including 75-60 in San Antonio and 67-63 in El Paso.

Pearson scores 25 as Texas State knocks off Rice, 74-60

Junior guard Nijal Pearson hit five 3-point baskets en route to 25 points Wednesday night, pacing the Texas State Bobcats past the Rice Owls, 74-60, in San Marcos.

Texas State (6-1) has won four straight leading into a Saturday afternoon road game at UTSA.

In the game played at Strahan Arena, the Bobcats beat the Owls 40-30 on the boards and made 11 of 27 shots from beyond the arc.

Chris Mullins led the Owls (3-5) with 12 points and four steals.

Pearson, from Beaumont, will come into San Antonio leading Texas State in scoring at 21 points per game.

The 6-5 guard has scored a combined 58 points in his last two games, including 33 against in a 91-68 win at Portland on Saturday night in Oregon.

As a team, the Bobcats are limiting opponents to 57.7 points on 37 percent shooting.

UTSA’s Kirby spoils Rice coaching legend’s S.A. finale

On Wayne Graham’s last trip to San Antonio as coach of the Rice Owls, his team won two out of three from UTSA and kept hope alive for a shot at the postseason.

But after the Owls shut down the home team twice on Saturday, the Roadrunners returned the favor on Sunday, courtesy of a masterful performance from pitcher Chance Kirby.

Kirby pitched into the eighth inning and struck out a career-high 13 in UTSA’s 7-0 victory.

“UT-San Antonio has a fine baseball team,” Graham said. “Winning two out of three from them here is a big deal. The kid’s pitching performance today was really that good. There’s no joke. He really pitched well.”

Baseball coaching legend Wayne Graham of the Rice Owls talks to home plate umpire Joe Brown after the fourth inning.

Any series against the Graham-coached Owls is always a highlight on the Roadrunners’ home schedule.

But this one took on added significance on April 25, when the 82-year-old, College Baseball Hall of Famer announced that this season would be his last at Rice.

Based on what he had been told by a Rice administrator, Graham said his contract would not be extended and that his 27-year tenure as coach of the Owls would be coming to an end.

Discussing the impending end of an era, UTSA coach Jason Marshall said Graham’s legacy is secure in baseball circles.

“You talk about the respect of his peers, when he sits in a room talking baseball, you just sit there and shut your mouth and listen,” Marshall said. “He is just a great baseball coach and great baseball mind (who) has always gotten the most out of his players.”

Chance Kirby struck out a career-high 13 Sunday as UTSA shut out the Rice Owls, 7-0.

Since Graham took charge in 1992, Rice has fared well on state, regional and national levels, compiling a record of 1,167-523.

Starting in 1995, the Owls embarked on a string of 23 straight NCAA tournaments, the third-longest streak in the nation behind Florida State (40) and Cal State-Fullerton (26).

In that time, they’ve played in seven College World Series, winning the 2003 national title along the way.

In the past two seasons, however, Rice’s dominance has started to fade.

Last year, the Owls struggled to a 13-25 start, before a late surge propelled them into the C-USA tournament and, ultimately, to the title at Biloxi, Miss.

This year, Rice (20-26-2) still has work to do even to qualify for the C-USA’s postseason event in Biloxi.

The Owls trail the UAB Blazers and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, both tied for eighth in the conference standings.

If the tournament started today, UAB and Western Kentucky (both 11-13) would have the edge over ninth-place Rice (9-13-2).

Fortunately for Graham, two weeks remain on the schedule, and he gets to play UAB at home next weekend before finishing at FIU.


UTSA’s Jonathan Tapia scores from third, sliding into home to beat a throw from the outfield on Ben Brookover’s second-inning sacrifice fly.

Graham, from Yoakum, turned into a solid 1950s-era amateur ball player at Houston Reagan and at the University of Texas.

He later played third base and outfield in the pros, including 10 games for the Gene Mauch-managed Philadelphia Phillies in 1963 and 20 more in ’64 for the New York Mets, under Casey Stengel.

Graham said he learned a lot in a short time under Stengel.

“I didn’t dare sit next to him on the bench–and that’s what I occupied with the Mets was the bench,” he said during his induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012. “But I was close enough to hear everything …

“He ran a commentary on the game as you went, especially on how the pitcher was pitching to our hitters, and I have grown to think that is pretty important.”

Graham didn’t get all the answers from Stengel.

He said he is struggling with the idea that he no longer will be coaching.

At the same time, Graham said he won’t allow his emotions to affect his work at the Owls prepare for the last two weeks.

“It’s rough off the field,” he said. “It’s not rough on the field. I’ve always come to the ball park with complete absorption in the game. I don’t have any choice. I couldn’t do it any other way.”

Having coached since the early 1970s, when he started at Houston Scarborough High School, Graham is philosophical about moving on.

“All things come to and end, unfortunately,” he said. “(But) I don’t know many people that coach that long. I’ve had 47 years in the game. Loved it.

“You know, I’m sort of like (former Texas football coach Darrell) Royal. He said the losses hurt a lot. Well, they do hurt. But I’m still able to recover. This has been a really rough year.”


Brookover sparked a two-run first inning for the Roadrunners with an opposite-field single to right.

UTSA by the numbers

Record: 26-20, 12-11 in C-USA

Place in the standings: Fifth

Sunday’s standouts

Pitching: Chance Kirby, 7 and 1/3 innings, 4 hits, 1 walk, 13 strikeouts

Hitting: 1B Ben Brookover and SS Joshua Lamb, both 2 for 4, with 3 RBI.

Fielding: Diving catches by CF Jonathan Tapia and LF Todd Bowles

Coming up

UTSA at Old Dominion, Friday through Sunday