Croatian forward brings multiple skills to UTSA basketball

UTSA forward Luka Barisic had nine points and five rebounds in 19 minutes last week in an exhibition victory against Texas A&M International. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA forward Luka Barisic had nine points and five rebounds in 19 minutes in an exhibition game last week against Texas A&M International. – photo by Joe Alexander

If you execute a Google search for the city of Osijek, Croatia, you may come across a video showing aerial views of a picturesque community built on the river Drava, which cuts a wide swath through the town and meanders out across a marshy terrain in the distance.

Within Osijek itself, a paved promenade runs adjacent to the river. Bells ring out from a few quaint, spire-topped churches, which stand tall above clusters of four- and five-story buildings. This is the hometown of promising UTSA basketball newcomer Luka Barisic.

In Texas terms, Osijek is about the size of New Braunfels. Its population is pegged at anywhere from 84,000 to 88,000, according to various websites. But if you think Barisic is homesick or awestruck about living in a metropolitan area in South Texas, so far away from his European roots, think again.

The 21-year-old junior forward is a young man who has been on his own, away from home, for the past six years. In high school, Barisic attended a private academy in Zagreb, Croatia. For the past two years, he has lived and played junior college basketball in Freeport, Ill., about a two-hour drive to Chicago.

“My home town (of Osijek) is probably less than 100,000 (population),” Barisic said. “When you see Chicago, it’s probably like all of Croatia, because it’s like, four million people. It’s a big city. (It) gives you a good view of where you are, that you are in the U.S.”

UTSA forward Luka Barisic charges through traffic on the dribble in an exhibition against Texas A&M International. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA forward Luka Barisic charges through traffic on the dribble in an exhibition against Texas A&M International. – photo by Joe Alexander

In July, he moved to San Antonio and started classes at UTSA. On Tuesday night, he likely will get a starting nod at forward in the Roadrunners’ season opener at Oklahoma. For Barisic, a former small-town kid from central Europe, it will be a major moment in his life.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “My team, we are like, ready and waiting for Tuesday.”

Also ready is Danko Barisic, 34, the ball player’s proud older brother. Some 15 years ago, Danko left Croatia to play in the United States. He spent two years at Weber State and two more at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Danko likes his brother’s chances to succeed.

“He’s really a good player,” said Danko Barisic, a 2008 St. Mary’s graduate and a Boerne resident. “He’s very humble, but he’s also a confident kid. Anyone who comes in contact with him know he is wise beyond his years.

Self-sufficient and motivated

“He’s been living away from home since he was 15 years old, when he started playing for a basketball academy back home. He’s self-sufficient and motivated. I think he’s going to do well.”

In the past year, UTSA coach Steve Henson reeled in a top-notch recruiting class featuring four-star center Jacob Germany, Barisic and others. If Barisic gets the starting nod against OU, as expected, he will be the only one of the incoming class to do so.

“Luka is certainly a three-point threat,” Henson said. “He’s also a very good passer.”

Henson said UTSA will miss forward Nick Allen, a four-year player for the Roadrunners who has played out his eligibility. But the coach hopes that newcomers such as Barisic, Germany and Phoenix Ford can step in to fill the void.

Barisic, who carries 240 pounds on a 6-foot-10 frame, has a unique skill-set that attracted interest from several NCAA Division I programs.

“We knew he was a good passer in the post,” Henson said. “(But) he passes it better from the perimeter than we anticipated. (He’s) a highly-skilled guy. He’s not the most athletic guy. If we’re going to compare him to Nick (Allen), he’s not as quick. He’s not as defensive minded.

“But, certainly, we hope we can offset that with just his high skill level. Pretty high IQ as well. So, he’s going to have a huge role for us.”

Honing advanced skills

Barisic developed an all-around game years ago in competition against older players, his brother said.

“He had always played with guys a little older, handling the ball on the outside,” Danko Barisic said. “His coaches had the foresight to develop that part of his game. They let him develop his skills on the outside early on. Handling the ball. Shooting the three.”

After Henson saw Luka Barisic play in the national junior college tournament in 2018, a scholarship offer was tendered.

But the family waited, and other phone calls started to come in. They came from Drake, the University of San Diego, Stephen F. Austin and Southern Illinois, the player’s older brother said. Barisic also took an unofficial visit to Minnesota, a power program in the Big Ten.

He eventually signed with UTSA in the spring this year.

“I was talking to a lot of coaches, to a lot of schools, some Big Ten schools,” Luka Barisic said. “But I was not impressed with some schools. What coach Henson presented was very good for me. So, I decided to come here.

“I think it’s a great program that (can) develop me, to play and enjoy the game of basketball.”

A family feel matters

Henson said he figured that with the ball player’s older brother living in the area, UTSA would have a good chance to sign him. Barisic didn’t discount the idea that having family within 30 miles of campus was a positive.

“Of course, that was some plus,” the ball player said. “But that wasn’t something that was the most important for my decision.”

Barisic has played at a high level for the past two years. In the summer of 2018, he made the under-18 Croatia National Team. In 2018-19, he averaged 17.9 points and 6.8 rebounds at Highland (Ill.) Community College and made third-team NJCAA All-American.

He said he liked the feel of the UTSA program when he came to visit. He said it felt sort of like home.

“One of the most important things about sport in general is chemistry,” Barisic said. “And, right now, I can tell you that we got great chemistry in the locker room. We’re like a big family. I think that is very important to us, and that it will bring good results.”

To the point: UTSA’s Wallace shines in exhibition victory

Keaton Wallace had 14 points and 7 assists as UTSA beat Texas A&M International 89-60 in an exhibition game on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Keaton Wallace had 14 points and 7 assists as UTSA beat Texas A&M International 89-60 in an exhibition game on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 at the UTSA Convocation Center. – photo by Joe Alexander


As the UTSA Roadrunners trampled Division II Texas A&M International 89-60 Wednesday night in an exhibition at the Convocation Center, junior Keaton Wallace emerged as the team’s heir apparent at point guard.

Wallace, who has played off the ball for most of his first two seasons with the Roadrunners, handled the point with both precision and flair in a night’s work that spanned 27 minutes.

He did a little of everything well.

As a distributor, he passed for seven assists and didn’t make a turnover. As a defender, he disrupted the Laredo-based Dustdevils with four steals.

Most encouraging, Wallace did all of that while remaining a threat to shoot the ball, scoring 14 points on 4 of 10 from the field, including 2 of 8 from three.

Coming into the season, UTSA had a void to fill with three-year starting point guard Giovanni De Nicolao electing to finish school early so that he could play professionally in Italy.

In the wake of De Nicolao’s departure, UTSA coach Steve Henson has been looking to Wallace and Jhivvan Jackson, plus freshmen Erik Czumbel and Makani Whiteside, as options to play the position.

But it’s clear that Wallace, who brought the ball up court for most of the night in the exhibition, will take the reins when the Roadrunners open the regular season next Tuesday at Oklahoma.

“We’re going to have the ball in Keaton’s hands a lot,” Henson said. “He’s been playing the majority of the minutes at point guard for us. Jhivvan (Jackson), we want to get the ball in his hands. Erik (Czumbel) has been pretty steady there.

“If we need to get Keaton and Jhivvan off the ball, Erik can assume those (playmaking) duties. He’s very comfortable. He’s been a point guard his whole career.”

Wallace, who averaged 20.5 points per game last season, is embracing the opportunity to expand his role.

“Since we lost Gio last year, I decided to take my game to the next level, try to move to the one (guard), try to take on more of a leadership role this year,” he said.

The 6-3 guard from Dallas admitted that the move has been an adjustment.

“At first I was a little uncomfortable because I had to step outside of my shell and, you know, talk more, be more vocal, trying to get the guys more involved,” he said. “But now I’m feeling pretty good, being more comfortable.

“You know, I believe in the guys and the guys believe in me, so we had that trust. So, everything’s going good.”

Starting five

Henson started Atem Bior and Luka Barisic in the post positions, with Byron Frohnen on the wing, plus Jackson and Wallace in the back court. Barisic is a transfer from Highland Community College in Illinois. He is a native of Croatia.

The coach played all 13 players, including walk-on Austin Timperman.

Jackson, Conference USA’s leading scorer last year at 22.9 points per game, played predominantly off the ball and led the Roadrunners with 15 points in 16 minutes. He hit 3 of 11 from the field, 2 of 8 from three and 7 of 8 at the line.

Dance party

Freshman center Jacob Germany touched off a dance party by students behind press row when he soared for an alley-oop dunk in the second half. Germany, 6-10, from Kingston, Okla., finished with eight points and five rebounds.

As a team, the Roadrunners hit only 43.3 percent of their shots and were out-rebounded 45-39 by the out-sized Dustdevils. But UTSA made up for it by forcing 28 turnovers and holding the visitors to 36.2 percent afield.

Breaking out to a 49-30 lead at intermission, UTSA continued to pour it on and juiced the advantage by as many as 30 three times in the last five minutes.

Jhivvan Jackson had 15 points and 3 assists as UTSA beat Texas A&M International 89-60 in an exhibition game on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson had 15 points and 3 assists as UTSA beat Texas A&M International 89-60 in an exhibition game on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 at the UTSA Convocation Center. – photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA basketball to show off ‘depth across the board’

Steve Henson will lead his team into an exhibition game tonight at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson – File photo by Joe Alexander

Tonight, the popcorn will pop and the soft drinks will flow, and the UTSA Roadrunners will offer their fans the usual fare of concession food and drink in the foyer of the Convocation Center.

But unlike so many other exhibition openers in the nearly 40-year history of men’s basketball at the school, they’ll have more to offer than free admission, plus chips and sticky nachos.

This year, the Roadrunners also will unveil a team that might actually have the talent to be considered as an NCAA tournament contender.

As UTSA prepares for a 7 p.m. tipoff against Texas A&M International, fourth-year coach Steve Henson says it’s the best team he’s had on the Loop 1604 campus.

“It’s the most talented team since I’ve been here,” he said. “Biggest front line since I’ve been here, (with the) most three-point shooters.”

When Henson arrived at UTSA a little more than three years ago, the talent was not good.

The Roadrunners were coming off four straight losing records, including an abysmal 5-27 in 2015-16.

Since then, UTSA has completely revamped the program, posting a combined 37 wins in the past two years.

The back-to-back winning records of 20-15 two years ago, and 17-15 last year, are a first since 2010-11 and ’11-12, the program’s last two teams in the Southland Conference.

Last year, the Roadrunners challenged for the Conference USA regular-season title until the last few weeks behind the dynamic tandem of guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

Ultimately, they finished tied for second at 11-7 and earned a bye to the C-USA tournament quarterfinals in Frisco, where their road came to an end with a loss to the UAB Blazers.

In the season finale, the Roadrunners fell hard, giving up 50 points to the Blazers in the second half.

Leading by seven at intermission with senior power forward Nick Allen playing on a broken toe, they lost 85-76.

“People don’t give (senior) Giovanni (De Nicolao) and Nick enough credit for what they did defensively,” Henson said. “Those were the guys who, when things got tough, they would rally the troops … They were the talk the talk guys, and then walk the talk, and all that.

“I mean, they backed it up, and they were all about team, team, team.”

Henson will lean on Jackson and Wallace to assume the leadership responsibilities this year, in the program’s 39th season.

“We’ve got a pretty introverted team, a quiet team,” the coach said. “But those guys have provided the type of leadership that we need right now. (I’m) very pleased with that.”

UTSA at a glance

Program debut: UTSA started playing men’s basketball in 1981-82. NCAA tournament appearances: 1988, 1999, 2004, 2011. Last season: 17-15, 11-7 in Conference USA; lost in C-USA tournament quarterfinals.

Coach Steve Henson

Taking over a team that won only five games in 2015-16, Henson has coached UTSA to records of 14-19, 20-15 and 17-15. He’s finished 11-7 in conference each of the past two seasons.

Returning starters

G Jhivvan Jackson (22.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), G Keaton Wallace (20.2, 5.0), F Byron Frohnen (6.4, 6.8)

Newcomers to watch

C Jacob Germany, F Luka Barisic, G Knox Hellums, F Phoenix Ford, G Erik Czumbel, G Makani Whiteside

Notable

After the loss of three-year starter Giovanni De Nicolao, point guard duties are expected to be shared by Wallace, Jackson, Czumbel and Whiteside.

Quotable

“I think what really jumps out is just the competitiveness in practice,” Henson said. “It’s just a deeper (team), certainly bigger and stronger. Way more depth than we’ve ever had along the front line. It’s just very noticeable. You walk in and you see bigger and stronger guys … It creates a little more physicality in the paint. We’ve got good depth across the board. So when we go head to head, the games are pretty competitive.”

Jhivvan Jackson. Old Dominion beat UTSA 65-64 on Thursday night in a Conference USA game at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson

UTSA’s Jackson works to get healthy for the UAB Blazers

UTSA guard Jhivvan Jackson spent most of Friday afternoon’s workout either going through skill drills and shooting, or toiling with strengthening exercises to rehabilitate a sore left shoulder.

Jhivvan Jackson. Old Dominion beat UTSA 65-64 on Thursday night in a Conference USA game at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson drives to the bucket against Old Dominion. – Photo by Joe Alexander

When the Roadrunners competed in sets involving scrimmaging and contact, Jackson did not participate.

It’s not a particularly good sign for the Roadrunners, who nevertheless are keeping a good thought that the right-handed Jackson can play against the UAB Blazers Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Convocation Center.

Asked about the status of Conference USA’s leading scorer for the UAB game, UTSA coach Steve Henson said he didn’t know for sure.

“You know, when we left last night, we felt pretty good about it. He woke up pretty sore today. Then we were concerned about it. But he did get some good treatment with (trainer) Josh (Modica),” the coach said.

Jackson hurt the shoulder mid-way through the second half of a Thursday night loss to Old Dominion.

After coming out of the game for a few minutes to stretch it out, he re-entered and played most of the last 10 minutes.

On Friday afternoon, Modica worked with Jackson off to the side for much of the 90-minute drill.

“Josh does a terrific job,” Henson said. “Twenty four hours from now, (Jhivvan)’ll feel a lot better and then Sunday at 2, he’ll feel close to normal. I liked the way he walked out of here today, so that was good.”

Forward Nick Allen isn’t worried about the matter.

“He’s good,” Allen said. “He’s just resting up that little shoulder. I think he bumped it or something last nght. He’s good to go. He’s ready. He’s always ready.”

Notable

Because the UAB game is the last one on UTSA’s home schedule this spring, the Roadrunners will honor seniors Allen and Toby Van Ry and both juniors Giovanni De Nicolao and Mitar Stanocevic, who are both graduating.

Even though Old Dominion has clinched the regular-season title, UTSA needs a victory to bolster its chances of gaining a first-round bye in the C-USA tournament.

UAB (17-12, 9-7) defeated UTSA (15-13, 9-6) on Jan. 19 in Birmingham.

The Blazers won by a score of 83-73 with a balanced attack that featured 53 percent shooting from the field and six players in double figures.

After playing the Blazers, the Roadrunners will take on Western Kentucky and Southern Miss on the road to complete the regular season.

C-USA Standings
Group 1

Old Dominion 23-6, 13-3
Western Kentucky 17-12, 10-6
Southern Miss 17-10, 9-6
UTSA 15-13, 9-6
UAB 17-12, 9-7

Confident UTSA visits Southern Miss as ‘bonus play’ looms

Freshman Adokiye Iyaye says his UTSA teammates have a high level of confidence as they embark on a two-game trip this week to Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. – Photo by Joe Alexander

After a clunky start to the season last fall, UTSA has transformed itself into a smooth operation, a basketball team that expects to win.

The Roadrunners have won 15 of their last 20 leading into a key Conference USA road trip this week to Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.

Moreover, they’ve moved into a virtual tie for first in the C-USA with Old Dominion, all of which has made UTSA coach Steve Henson proud of his players for their efforts.

“Proud of the way they handled it early on when we weren’t winning, when we weren’t playing great basketball,” Henson said. “You know, our guys stayed together. They believed in each other. They knew they had enough talent in the locker room to turn it around.

“Early in the season, we talked about our leadership and maturity, and those things really came through when we needed them to.”

Old Dominion (20-6, 10-3) and UTSA (15-10, 9-3) lead the C-USA race as teams around the conference forge ahead into the last weekend before a four-game, ‘bonus play’ phase of the schedule commences next week.

In all, the Roadrunners will play six more games to complete the regular season, including Thursday night at Southern Miss and Saturday afternoon at Louisiana Tech.

At Southern Miss, the Roadrunners will play in a venue where they’re 0-5 all time, including 0-2 in two trips during the Henson era.

In addition, the fifth-place Golden Eagles (15-9, 7-5) have won four straight.
Given all that, Southern Miss can expect a serious challenge from the Nos. 1 and 3 scorers in the conference – UTSA guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

That winning feeling

The two have taken turns in leading the Roadrunners to important C-USA victories over North Texas, Old Dominion and Marshall.

“Whenever we step on the court, we just feel like we’re going to win every game,” UTSA freshman Adokiye Iyaye said. “That’s our approach.”

Coach Steve Henson says UTSA faces a tough six-game schedule to close the regular season. – Photo by Joe Alexander

After sweeping Florida International and Florida Atlantic last week, the Roadrunners learned late Saturday that they had clinched a spot in the top tier of bonus play.

In other words, UTSA will be grouped with the C-USA’s top five teams after Saturday to play its last four games.

“Well, it’s interesting,” Henson said. “It’s nice. I guess.

“It guarantees us six really, really tough games (to close the regular season). I know that. But it also gives us a chance to play the other teams that are fighting for the league championship.

“That’s the thing that’s unique. There’s a feeling that we’re starting something new, but in reality, it’s still regular season play.

“We know that we’re going to have four really tough games. Two at home. Two on the road. That’s all we know at this point.”

New schedule origins

The new scheduling format was voted in last spring in an effort to help the conference get more than one team into the NCAA Tournament.

It was also designed to help an NCAA qualifier, or qualifiers, get higher seeds in the 68-team bracket.

Henson said it doesn’t look like the C-USA will get a second team in the NCAA field this season.

The coach said it’s unlikely that anyone beyond the C-USA tournament champion will make it because teams didn’t do enough in pre-conference games for the ‘bonus play’ matchups to help.

Asked if he thinks C-USA will elect to employ the ‘bonus play’ experiment next year if, as expected, a second team doesn’t make it, Henson declined to speculate.

“Well, it’ll be interesting,” the coach said. “We’ll go to those league meetings. Everybody will start out the meeting trying to figure out what’s best for the league, and then in the end, everyone starts fighting for their own territory.

“You know, it’s hard. You got to get 14 people on the same page. You have to look at the big picture. We all are in agreement (that) we want to be a two-bid league. A three-bid league. We’ll agree that the teams at the top are good enough.”

Searching for answers

Henson pointed out that the one C-USA entry in the NCAA field each of the past four seasons has won at least one game against a higher-seeded opponent.

“You know, we go to the NCAA Tournament every year, and we win … four straight years, against elite opponents,” he said. “We go in with a low seed and knock off good teams. We know the potential is there.

“We just have to figure out the best way to do it.”

Title-hungry UTSA can’t afford a loss today against FAU

Steve Henson. UTSA beat Florida International 100-67 on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson leads his team into a 3 p.m. home game today against the FAU Owls. His Roadrunners need a victory to boost their conference title hopes. – Photo by Joe Alexander

For the UTSA Roadrunners, the mental approach has become almost as important as the physical challenge leading into the stretch run of a race for the Conference USA championship.

For instance, the Roadrunners scorched the FIU Panthers 100-67 on Thursday night, scoring 50 points in each half and running away with one of their best performances of the season.

Keaton Wallace. UTSA beat Florida International 100-67 on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Keaton Wallace led the Roadrunners with 27 points against FIU. -Photo by Joe Alexander.

On the other hand, the effort wasn’t good enough for them to make up any ground on their competitors at the top of the standings.

Both Old Dominion and North Texas also won, leaving the three teams in a virtual tie for first place with seven games left in the regular season.

UTSA once again will try to take the lead in the C-USA race when it hosts the Florida Atlantic Owls today at 3 p.m.

The Roadrunners worked on some FAU-related issues Friday afternoon, but the intensity wasn’t at an extremely high level, as coaches tried to make sure the players are ready for the Owls with fresh legs.

Mentally, players have been told that even though they have won eight out of 11 C-USA games, they can’t afford “slippage.”

In other words, a nine-game home winning streak is nice, the longest at UTSA in 27 years.

But they don’t want to wake up on Sunday having lost to an FAU team jockeying for position in the middle of the 14-team standings.

“We try to be real honest with them,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said.

“We try not to over-sell anything to em. On one hand, we’re in great shape. On the other hand, the standings are still pretty bunched up. We just can’t afford any slippage at this point in the season.”

Atem Bior. UTSA beat Florida International 100-67 on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Junior forward Atem Bior has scored 12 points off the bench in each of UTSA’s last two games. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Old Dominion leads at 9-3, with UTSA and North Texas at 8-3. Western Kentucky looms in fourth place at 7-4. Three other teams are tied for fifth at 6-5.

“There could be a lot of movement with three games left in this round, and you’ve got four more games left in bonus play, on top of that,” Henson said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played. You want to keep doing what we’re doing. Preparing the same way.”

A loss to FAU could be extremely costly, as UTSA faces next week an always-difficult road trip to Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.

Likely, UTSA needs to win two of the three games to be assured of making it to bonus play in the top tier.

In bonus play, teams will be grouped together, with five in the top tier, five in a middle tier and four in a lower tier. Each group will play four games in a round-robin format.

It’s critical for UTSA to be in the top-five tier, because teams in sixth place or below after next Saturday are effectively shut out of the chance for a top-four position going into the C-USA tournament.

Only the top five can secure a top-four seed, which guarantees a bye through the first round of the tournament.

In other words, if the Roadrunners slipped and lose two of their next three games, they could be faced with having to win four games in four days at Frisco for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Nick Allen. UTSA beat Mid-American Christian 104-74 on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Nick Allen had 11 points and 10 rebounds against FIU. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Considering that UTSA has played all year with a seven-man rotation, that would be a difficult task.

So, even though the Roadrunners feel good about their standing at the moment, their sense of urgency against FAU needs to remain high to avoid what could lead to an extremely uncomfortable feeling leading into next week.

“Again that’s where our maturity comes out,” Henson said. “Guys understand it’s nice to be where we’re at, but if you slip up, any day, then we’re losing ground. We won a game on Thursday, but the teams we’re competing against won, as well.

“So, we didn’t gain any ground except on the peoeple behind us. A lot of work to do.”

C-USA Standings

Old Dominion 9-3, 19-6
North Texas 8-3, 20-4
UTSA 8-3, 14-10
Western Kentucky 7-4, 14-10
Southern Miss 6-5, 14-9
UAB 6-5, 14-10
Marshall 6-5, 13-11
LA Tech 5-6, 15-9
FIU 5-6, 14-10
FAU 5-6, 14-10
Middle Tennessee 5-6, 8-16
Rice 4-7, 9-15
UTEP 2-9, 7-15
Charlotte 2-10, 5-18

Today’s schedule

FAU at UTSA, 3 p.m.
LA Tech at Southern Miss, 4 p.m.
Western Kentucky at North Texas, 5 p.m.
Old Dominion at Middle Tennessee, 6 p.m.
Marshall at Rice, 7 p.m.
Charlotte at UAB, 7 p.m.
FIU at UTEP, 8 p.m.

UTSA to host fast-paced FIU Panthers tonight


Emotions overflow at the end of a memorable game on Jan. 26 at the UTSA Convocation Center. After Keaton Wallace hits a falling-down three out of the corner for the go-ahead basket, Old Dominion misses three times in the last 15 seconds, setting off a wild celebration. UTSA erased an 18-point deficit in the final 4:43 to win, 74-73.

When the Florida International University Panthers are at their best, they’re pressuring the ball, pushing the pace and scoring points in a hurry.

Led by first-year head coach Jeremy Ballard, FIU is expected to bring that mindset to San Antonio tonight in a Conference USA road test against UTSA.

The Panthers have forced opponents into 20.3 turnovers per game, turning those miscues into 20.5 points — good for 23.9 percent of their scoring.

A game with pace might not be a bad thing for the Roadrunners, who have cranked up their offense to challenge for first place in the C-USA.

UTSA is coming off a wild road trip in which it scored 204 points in two games that both went to overtime.

In a 96-88 loss to Western Kentucky, and then in a 116-106 victory at Marshall, UTSA guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace took turns scorching the nets for more than 40 points.

Jackson had 46 at Western Kentucky and Wallace 45 at Marshall for the third- and fourth-best scoring games in school history.

UTSA has bigger plans than simply running up big offensive numbers.

The Roadrunners, under third-year coach Steve Henson, are playing to win the C-USA title and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

C-USA standings
Old Dominion 8-3, 18-6
North Texas 7-3, 19-4
UTSA 7-3, 13-10
UAB 6-4, 14-9
Marshall 6-4, 13-10
W. Kentucky 6-4, 13-10
Southern Miss 6-5, 14-9
FIU 5-5, 14-9
LA Tech 5-6, 15-9
FAU 4-6, 13-10
Rice 4-6, 9-14
Middle Tennessee 4-6, 7-16
UTEP 2-8, 7-14
Charlotte 2-9, 5-17

Tonight’s schedule
Charlotte at Middle Tennessee 6:30 p.m.
Old Dominion at UAB, 7 p.m.
FIU at UTSA, 7 p.m.
Marshall at North Texas, 7 p.m.
Western Kentucky at Rice, 8 p.m.
FAU at UTEP, 8 p.m.

Wild times: UTSA outscores Marshall, 116-106, in OT

At one point Saturday night, the stars just didn’t seem to be aligned for UTSA coach Steve Henson to celebrate a happy birthday.

His team blew a four-point lead in the last eight seconds of regulation against the Marshall Thundering Herd.

But as it turned out, birthday No. 51 emerged as one for the books for Henson and the Roadrunners.

Keaton Wallace scored 14 of his career-high 45 points in overtime as UTSA knocked off Marshall, 116-106, in a Conference USA thriller at Huntington, West Virginia.

“Last game, coach got on us, so we knew we had to step up for him,” Wallace told a television reporter for Stadium College Basketball. “Today’s his birthday. We had to get a dub for coach.”

Two nights ago, Western Kentucky beat UTSA 96-88 in overtime to spoil a career-high 46-point effort from Roadrunners guard Jhivvan Jackson.

But on the back end of a memorable two-game road trip, Wallace broke the 40-point barrier for the first time in his career and Jackson scored 30, lifting the Roadrunners into a tie for second in the C-USA standings.

“Every time somebody asks me about Jhivvan, I talk about Keaton,” Henson told the television network. “Both those guys are doing great things for us this year. Keaton’s worked incredibly hard. He’s been special all year long.

“I’m not surprised that he would have a good game like that.

“It was good for our guys to gt that win after what happened to us on Thursday. The way it happened, it was pretty special for us.”

Old Dominion leads the C-USA at 8-3, followed by UTSA and North Texas at 7-3. UAB, Marshall and Western Kentucky are knotted at 6-4.

Records

UTSA 13-10, 7-3
Marshall 13-10, 6-4

Notable

The game featured two of the most dynamic backcourts in the C-USA — Wallace and Jackson for UTSA and C.J. Burks and Jon Elmore for Marshall. Burks scored 31 points and Elmore produced 29, including a four-point play to force the overtime. Elmore hit a three from the wing, got fouled by Atem Bior with 3.1 seconds left, and then followed with the game-tying free throw.

Quotable

“When we did not win in regulation, I was kicking myself over there,” Henson told UTSA’s radio broadcast. “Again, a couple of plays that we got to avoid. Plays we’ve got to make, to win in regulation … When it happens to you two times in three nights, it’s pretty hard to bounce back. I was really, really proud of the way they played really the whole second half, and especially overtime.”

And, finally …

Bior, a junior from Brisbane, Australia, produced his first career double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. He had eight defensive boards and four on the offensive end. He also had a steal and a blocked shot … UTSA snapped a string of three straight road losses, improving to 2-3 on the road in the C-USA … The Roadrunners are 10-3 in their last 13 games overall.

Resilience defines Steve Henson’s UTSA Roadrunners

Steve Henson, UTSA beat Mid-American Christian 104-74 on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Steve Henson has led UTSA into first place in Conference USA. – Photo by Joe Alexander.

In the first few years of the Steve Henson era at UTSA, one characteristic of his core group of players stands out above all the rest. It’s resilience. Physically, the Roadrunners won’t overwhelm anyone. But, like a wily boxer backed up on the ropes, they will deliver a devastating counter-punch when least expected.

Take, for instance, last year’s trip to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders thrashed the Roadrunners by 24 points and dropped them to 10-11 overall and 3-5 in Conference USA. But on the second stop on the trip, they somehow came up off the mat and delivered a few haymakers, winning 82-70 at UAB.

The rest is history, as the Roadrunners finished 20-15, including 11-7 in conference — the first 20-win season at UTSA in seven years. This season, it’s happened again. Starting the year without their best player, they plunged into their first few games and came up looking like Jerry Quarry against Muhammad Ali. They were 0-5 and reeling.

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

Jhivvan Jackson sat out the first three games this season to complete rehabilitation from a knee injury. He’s averaged 20.5 points since his return.

Undaunted, players on a trip to Florida for the Gulf Coast Showcase talked among themselves and got some things straightened out. Since then, UTSA has ripped off a 10-2 record, including a seven-game winning streak and a school-record tying 4-0 start in conference.

Given all that, I talked to Coach Henson yesterday as he prepared his team for a return trip to Murfreesboro. I asked about his core group — Nick Allen, Giovanni De Nicolao, Byron Frohnen, Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace — and why he thinks those players are so resilient, so capable of handling adversity.

Here’s his response, in a Q&A format:

“A lot of factors there. It’s a very mature group. It’s a secure group. Got good leadership. And we’ve got so many guys whose only priority is finding a way to win. Doing whatever it takes to win. It’s a competitive, tough group. I’ve said it before. It’s not the type of group you’d literally want to get in an alley fight with. Basketball toughness, this group has it. They care about each other. There’s never been panic.

“This year, when we got off to a slow start, panic never set in. They knew we could right the ship. We just kept telling ’em, we have everything we need on this team to have a great year. And they believed that.

“Last year, you’re right on it. We lost a couple of games at home against teams that were not projected to be in the top half. We had an unbelievable stretch upcoming. Went to Middle Tennessee, and we were down 30 in that game. The next day, we had a great practice, a great film session.

“Pulled a few guys aside, the guys taking most of the shots. Jhivvan, Keaton and Deon (Lyle). Showed ’em their shots. Talked about getting better shots. Continuing to have that freedom, shooting it freely. Shooting it quickly. But let’s turn down a good shot for a great shot.”

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

Junior Byron Frohnen doesn’t need many shots to be effective. He leads the Roadrunners in rebounding. – Photo by Joe Alexander

So, part of it is just being coachable?

“Probably more succinct than what I just said, but, yeah. Willingness and coachability. For sure. Our season did turn at UAB last year. It was one of our best games of the year offensively and defensively. It was huge, because we were coming back home to play Marshall and Western Kentucky. With UTEP looming. So, our backs were against the wall. And our guys responded very, very well.”

When you’re recruiting, how do you find players who have those qualities?

“It’s hard. You watch body language. You talk to coaches. We try to recruit from successful programs. Guys who are used to winning. There’s great value in that. A lot of coaches value that. Sometimes, there’s going to be some unknowns. You just try to do as much work as you can … You want guys that just love to play, guys that are hungry. Guys that care about their teammates.”

It sounds as if some of the players got together after the loss to South Dakota State earlier this season and talked it over.

“When your players take ownership of your program, you’ve got a much better chance of being successful. I mean, we want it. We know they want it. They know coaches want it. When it comes from them, it’s got much more weight. And it doesn’t have to be upperclassmen.

“You know, leadership can come from anyone. When it comes from the players, it means a lot. Not surprised that they were frustrated (on the trip to Florida). But they also know that we could turn it around. (That) there was no doubt. I keep talking abouut panic. But there was no doubt. They believed.”


Last Saturday, UTSA played its trademark tough defense in defeating North Texas, 76-74. With the performance, the Roadrunners snapped the Mean Green’s eight-game winnning streak and took over first place in the conference.

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.