No. 14 Louisiana Tech sweeps doubleheader from UTSA

Parker Bates slammed a walk-off, 3-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning Saturday to propel the 14th-ranked Louisiana Tech Bulldogs to a 10-7 victory and a doubleheader sweep over the UTSA Roadrunners.

In the Conference USA series being played at Ruston, La., Louisiana Tech leads two games to one going into the Sunday afternoon finale.

The Roadrunners took another successful swipe at one of the nation’s best teams Friday night when they downed the Bulldogs, 7-5. Arturo Guajardo got the last three outs with two runners on base for the save.

In the first game of Saturday’s twin-bill, Louisiana Tech bounced back behind pitcher Ryan Jennings, who hurled a complete-game, seven-inning three hitter in a 4-1 victory. Hunter Wells and Bates delivered run-scoring singles in a four-run fourth.

Jennings escaped a jam in the sixth when he allowed a two-out double to Dylan Rock and then struck out power-hitting Nick Thornquist to end the inning.

In the second game, the Roadrunners had their chances to split the doubleheader but couldn’t hold on to a pair of leads. They held a 3-0 edge in the second inning. They were up 4-2 in the fifth. In the bottom of the fifth, the momentum swung in favor of the Bulldogs, who scored five runs. Not to be outdone, the Roadrunners added three in the top of the seventh to make it 7-7.

When the game went to extra innings, UTSA couldn’t score in its half of the eighth. From there, the Roadrunners handed the ball to Guajardo, who got into trouble immediately. He walked Taylor Young. Then Hunter Wells singled, putting runners at first and second and bringing up Bates.

Bates, a fifth-year senior from Tyler, pulled a ball over the right field wall to win it.

Louisiana Tech’s resilience spoiled what could have been a big day for the Roadrunners. Coming into Saturday, UTSA had won three of its last five — all against Top 25 competition. They had split four games against Old Dominion last weekend in San Antonio and then had won the opener against LA Tech, a team viewed as likely to play in the NCAA tournament.

Tech will host the C-USA tournament, scheduled for May 26-30. Tech also is under consideration to host an NCAA first-weekend regional the following weekend. UTSA, in turn, likely needs to win the C-USA tourney title to nail down its first NCAA berth since 2013.

Records

UTSA 22-23, 14-16
Louisiana Tech 35-14, 21-8

Elsewhere

No. 4 Tennessee rallied in the bottom of the ninth on a Max Ferguson 3-run homer to down top-ranked Arkansas, 8-7, at Knoxville. The win squares the three-game series between SEC heavyweights at 1-1.

No. 2 Vanderbilt, behind starting pitcher Jack Leiter, routed 18th-ranked Ole Miss, 13-2, in Oxford. SEC series is tied 1-1 going into Sunday’s finale.

Unranked Missouri notched a 16-8 road victory to win the SEC series 2-1 against No. 3 Mississippi State, in Starkville.

Cal Conley and Dru Baker hit grand slams as No. 7 Texas Tech won on the road in the Big 12 at unranked Oklahoma, 15-2. The series is tied 1-1 going into Sunday’s finale.

Surprising UTSA set to play two today against No. 14 LA Tech

The UTSA Roadrunners have quietly started to drop subtle hints to the rest of Conference USA that they might be a factor in the postseason.

UTSA’s latest surprise came Friday night when it held on to beat the 14th-ranked Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 7-5 in a road game at Ruston, La. It was UTSA’s third win in its last five games — all against Top 25 competition.

After the Roadrunners rallied with three runs in the seventh to take the lead, they held on to win the first game of a four-game series behind the pitching of Hunter Mason and Arturo Guajardo.

Grant Miller earned the victory with 1 and 2/3 innings of work. Mason followed with scoreless innings in the seventh and the eighth. Guajardo, UTSA’s sixth pitcher, delivered with a scoreless ninth for the save.

Leyton Barry hit a two-run homer for the Roadrunners, who handed Tech starting pitcher Jonathan Fincher his first loss of the season. The Roadrunners and Bulldogs continue the series today in a 2 p.m. doubleheader. The finale is Sunday at 1 p.m.

Elsewhere:

Arkansas 6, Tennessee 5

Rankings: (1) Arkansas; (4) Tennessee
Friday’s rundown: Falling behind by five runs after the first inning, the top-ranked Razorbacks were sparked by home runs from Robert Moore and Brady Slavens to rally for the SEC road win.
Coming up: Game 2 of a three-game series today at 11 a.m., at Knoxville, Tenn.

Ole Miss 3, Vanderbilt 1

Rankings: (18) Ole Miss; (2) Vanderbilt
Friday’s rundown: Kevin Graham and TJ McCants homered for Ole Miss as the Rebels, playing at home, handed Kumar Rocker his second loss of the season.
Coming up: Game 2 of a three-game series today at 4 p.m., at Oxford, Miss.

Oklahoma 9, Texas Tech 8

Rankings: (7) Texas Tech
Friday’s rundown: Oklahoma scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 10th to take the first game of the Big 12 series. Jace Jung, from San Antonio MacArthur, slugged his 17th home run of the season for the Red Raiders.
Coming up: Game 2 of a three-game series today at 2 p.m. in Norman, Okla.

UTSA takes two against 19th-ranked Old Dominion

UTSA celebrates after Griffin Paxton (22) hit a three-run homer in the first inning to give the Roadrunners an 8-3 lead over Old Dominion. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA celebrates after Griffin Paxton (22) hits a three-run homer in the first inning of Saturday’s first game. – photo by Joe Alexander

The UTSA baseball team probably hasn’t swept many, if any, doubleheaders from nationally-ranked teams in their three-decade history. Until Saturday afternoon, that is.

The Roadrunners took two seven-inning games at home from the 19th-ranked Old Dominion Monarchs, winning 12-10 and then 11-0.

If the sweep wasn’t surprise enough, the second game was something of a shocker in that a usually inconsistent UTSA pitching staff stepped up to toss a two-hit shutout.

UTSA’s Chase Keng (4), Joshua Lamb (2) and Shea Gutierrez (3) all scored in the first inning on a triple by Leyton Barry (top), who slides into third. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA’s Chase Keng (4), Joshua Lamb (2) and Shea Gutierrez (3) all scored in the first inning of the first game on a triple by Leyton Barry (top), who slides into third. – photo by Joe Alexander

The trio of Jacob Jimenez, Grant Miller and Hunter Mason pulled it off against one of the best offenses in Conference USA. Combined, Jimenez, Miller and Mason struck out 12 and walked two.

The Monarchs were held hitless until two out in the sixth when Carter Trice hit a double off Mason.

All day, the UTSA hitting attack was strong.

In the opener, the Roadrunners smashed out 14 hits, including home runs from Griffin Paxton and Dylan Rock. In the second game, they kept it rolling with 13 hits, with homers coming from Paxton again, Nick Thornquist and Chase Keng.

Records

UTSA 13-13, 21-20
Old Dominion 18-8, 32-12

Coming up

Old Dominion at UTSA, Sunday, 1 p.m. (No general public tickets)

UTSA celebrates after Dylan Rock (27) homered to score his second run of the first inning and give the Roadrunners a 9-3 lead over Old Dominion. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA celebrates after Dylan Rock (27) homered to score his second run of the first inning and give the Roadrunners a 9-3 lead over Old Dominion. – photo by Joe Alexander

Karen Aston named UTSA women’s basketball coach

Karen Aston, the 2017 Big 12 Coach of the Year and a finalist for Naismith National Coach of the Year honors, on Monday was named the 10th women’s basketball head coach in UTSA history.

Aston has a career record of 285-146 (.661) with stops at Charlotte, North Texas and Texas. In her 13 seasons as a head coach, Aston’s teams have averaged 22 wins per year and have made a combined 10 postseason appearances.

Western Kentucky ousts UTSA from C-USA tournament, 80-67

Keaton Wallace, Jhivvan Jackson. UTSA beat UAB 96-79 in Conference USA on the Roadrunners' senior day for Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace and Phoenix Ford on Feb. 27, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson speculated that both Keaton Wallace (left) and Jhivvan Jackson will elect to ‘move on’ in their respective careers next season. — File photo by Joe Alexander


If Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace have played in their last game for UTSA, it was a tough way to go out.

The Charles Bassey-led Western Kentucky Hilltoppers scored an easy 80-67 victory over the Roadrunners Thursday night in Frisco, in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA championships.

Wallace emerged as the only consistent threat on a frustrating night for the Roadrunners as he scored 30 points. Jackson, the school’s all-time leading scorer, was held to five on 2 of 12 shooting.

Bassey, a 6-foot-11 center, finished with 21 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocked shots for the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said he doesn’t know how Bassey would be feeling on Friday morning, when the team meets the UAB Blazers in the tournament semifinals. The C-USA’s Player of the Year apparently was in some discomfort near the end of the game, leaving the court at one point to stretch.

“We’ll see,” Stansbury told a television reporter for Stadium. “I know he went out there (off to the side) hurt a little. So, we’ll see where he’s at. It’s a quick turnaround. We just got to find a way to be ready. Hope he’s ready to go.”

With the loss, UTSA has been eliminated from contention for the NCAA tournament. In a zoom conference with reporters, Coach Steve Henson talked as if his team had played its last game of the season.

Asked if thought he would have an opportunity to play again, in another postseason tournament, the coach said he didn’t know.

“I mean, there’s not as many tournaments available this year,” he said. “The fields are smaller. I would think it would be a long shot. We have not had any conversations about that at this point.”

But would Henson be interested in playing if the opportunity presented itself?

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think our team could beat a lot of teams in the country. I’d love to play again.”

Besides the National Invitation Tournament, which has been pared from 32 to 16 teams, with all games held in Dallas, Henson said he doesn’t know if any of the others are being played.

“We came here to try to fly to Indianapolis (for the NCAA tournament) at the end of the week and we didn’t get that done,” he said. “So, I don’t know. The NIT is the only one I’ve heard much about. They’ve reduced the field dramatically. I’m not with holding. I just don’t know.”

The College Basketball Invitational has reportedly been discussing either an eight- or 16-team field at a neutral site and that Texas State might be under consideration.

Officials announced last month that the CollegeInsider.com tournament, known as the CIT, has been cancelled. UTSA played in the CIT in 2018 and reached the second round.

Records

UTSA 15-11
Western Kentucky 19-6

Keys to the game

Western Kentucky’s defense on Jackson, primarily by freshman guard Dayvion McKnight. That, and physical play. Western Kentucky hammered the ball inside and went to the free-throw line, where they knocked down 24 of 25. UTSA finished 4 of 7 at the line.

First half

Western Kentucky showcased a physical style at the outset, and UTSA could not match it.

As a result, the Hilltoppers rolled to a 38-25 lead.

Offense was a struggle for the usually potent Roadrunners. Jackson (1 for 5 from the field) couldn’t get going. Neither could center Jacob Germany (1 for 4). Keaton Wallace (5 for 12) scored 12, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep pace with the Hilltoppers.

Blocking seven shots, the Hilltoppers didn’t allow the Roadrunners any easy chances. As a result, UTSA shot only 27.8 percent. Western Kentucky wasn’t great either at 42.4 percent. But the C-USA East heavyweights had just enough to make life miserable for UTSA, from the C-USA West.

Carson Williams, averaging 7.4 points, scored nine in the first half Luke Frampton had seven and Taveion Hollingsworth seven. UTSA played a good half defensively on Western Kentucky star Charles Bassey, who was held to four.

Second half

Bassey poured it on in the second half with 17 of his team-high 21 points. The former San Antonio schoolboy, a native of Nigeria, also had nine rebounds and five blocked shots.

Pounding the ball inside to their big center, the Hilltoppers shot 52 percent in the final 20 minutes. At one point, they kicked the lead up to 23 points. At one juncture, with his team pulling away, Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury pulled his starters.

Just then, UTSA put on a spurt, scoring nine straight points. An 11-2 UTSA run capped by a Wallace jumper pulled the Roadrunners to within 56-46. As a result, Stansbury put Bassey and his starters back in the game.

Bassey kick-started another Western Kentucky surge, first with an inside move and a three-point play. Later, he hit a three from the top of the circle with 7:27 remaining to give the Hilltoppers a 62-48 cushion. Immediately after hitting the shot, Bassey back-pedaled and shrugged, turning both of his palms up, as the Roadrunners called time.

UTSA never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.

Crediting the Roadrunners

For the record, the Hilltoppers squelched the Roadrunners’ hopes with a suffocating defense. UTSA shot 38 percent, in large part because Jackson was so far off his game. Jackson scored 46 points to set the arena record in an overtime loss at Western Kentucky in 2019. So, the Hilltoppers set their game plan, hoping to avoid another such explosion.

Stansbury told a television reporter for Stadium that his team’s defense on UTSA’s all-time scoring leader played a major role in the outcome.

“First of all, you’ve got to give San Antonio credit,” Stansbury said. “They’ve got a terrific team. Coach does a great job with ’em. I thought the difference in the game was what you just said, especially the first half. He’s so capable of beating you himself. We’ve seen that movie before. But I thought for the most part Dayvion (McKnight), a freshman guard, guarded him about as well as you can.

“You know, Wallace probably hurt us more than anything, more than anybody, but again, overall … I thought, defensively, we were pretty good.”

Fighting the good fight

Henson said Western Kentucky started to break the game open in the first half with a defense that led to offense.

“They got out pretty easily and ran in transition,” he said. “Just popped open a lead there. We’d already used a timeout early to try and slow down a run. Then we got trapped in the corner and used a second time out … So they built the lead there. We were so stagnant offensively. We just couldn’t get easy shots. Ball just wasn’t moving. Wasn’t zipping. Credit their defense, their length bothered us certainly. Bassey blocked some shots at the rim … Just a real struggle at the offensive end.”

Henson said Jackson’s struggles came with Western Kentucky’s physical style.

“We just couldn’t get him loose,” Henson said. “They were real physical with him … grabbing and holding, just couldn’t get him in space. He had some pullup jumpers that I thought he might hit. But, couldn’t get those down. Couldn’t get anything easy. Couldn’t get him off the ball. Couldn’t get him the ball screens.

“We’d been doing a pretty good job of mixing things up lately and finding different ways to get him going. Just couldn’t. Their length affected him a lot.”

Ready for the next chapter

With the five points against Western Kentucky, Jackson has scored 2,551 in his career. He is tied for 51st in NCAA Division I history with Rodney Monroe, who played for North Carolina State through 1991. Wallace has scored 2,080.

Because of NCAA actions in the wake of the pandemic, both have the opportunity to come back and play at UTSA for another season, but Henson said “we’ve been moving along with the idea that they’ll both move on. We’ll have a conversation about it. But we’re going to wish them well. I think they’re ready for the next chapter in their lives and in their careers.”

UTSA holds off Charlotte, 72-62, advances to C-USA quarterfinals

The UTSA Roadrunners celebrated in the locker room Wednesday night after opening the Conference USA championships with a 72-62 victory over the Charlotte 49ers.

At the same time, the good vibes were mixed with a sense of urgency on what comes next.

“We were excited that we were going to enjoy it for the next 20 or 30 minutes or so,” UTSA center Jacob Germany said. “But, we came here to win more than one game. So, we’re all feeling good, confident. But we’re locked into the next one, too.”

The Roadrunners advanced in the bracket into a quarterfinal matchup Thursday against the powerful Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The tournament is being held at The Star in Frisco.

In running up a 41-26 lead at halftime, the Roadrunners held the 49ers to 28 percent shooting, and senior guard Jhivvan Jackson exploded for 18 points.

UTSA’s defense played well at the outset, as well. Players really clamped down in the closing minutes of the half, limiting the 49ers to 1 of 8 shooting from the floor.

In the half, the 49ers hit only 7 of 25 shots.

Jackson was as good as ever in the early going. He hit two threes and scored 10 in the first eight minutes. For the half, he was 7 of 13 from the field.

UTSA experienced a scare with its leading scorer with about four minutes left before intermission, as he came out of the game holding his left shoulder. Jackson, who had suffered what Coach Steve Henson described as ‘like a stinger,’ returned with 3:49 remaining and played the rest of the way.

In the second half, Jackson wasn’t the same offensively as he went scoreless on 0 for 6 shooting. But as the 49ers rallied to get back into it, Keaton Wallace and Germany stepped in to stop the charge.

Wallace poured in 11 of his team-high 20 points and Germany scored 10 of his 16 after intermission. Germany also finished with 10 rebounds for his first postseason double-double.

Asked if he was worried when the 49ers started to make a run, Germany said, “Mmm, kind of.”

“Coach told us they were going to get into their little groove offensively and try to slow the game down,” he said. “We always knew they would eventually get going. But I think we did a good job in responding and controlling the game.”

For the streaking Roadrunners, it was their 10th win in their last 12 games. It was also their first win at the C-USA tournament since 2018 when they beat UTEP in the opening round before bowing out with a loss to Middle Tennessee in the quarterfinals.

In 2019, the Roadrunners had a first-round bye into the quarterfinals but stumbled in a loss to the UAB Blazers.

Last season, UTSA lost in the opening round, falling to UAB for the second straight year on March 11, the day before the tournament was scrapped because of the pandemic.

Charlotte’s season ended on a nine-game losing streak. The 49ers were led by guards Jordan Shepherd with 20 points and Jahmir Young with 19.

Records

UTSA 15-10
Charlotte 9-16

Coming up

Conference USA quarterfinals
Thursday, at The Star, in Frisco

UTSA vs. Western Kentucky, 5:30 p.m.
Rice vs. UAB, 6 p.m.

Looking ahead

Western Kentucky (18-6) is the No. 1 seed out of the C-USA East Division. The Hilltoppers boast the Player of the Year, center Charles Bassey. Bassey, a 6-11 center, averages 17.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 blocks.

Guard Taveion Hollingsworth (14.3 points and 2.3 assists) is also a threat. The Hilltoppers won in non- conference play against Memphis, Rhode Island and on the road at Alabama. They topped the C-USA East standings at 11-3. It’s the first game of the tournament for WKU, which earned a first-round bye. Because of the unbalanced schedule this year, the Roadrunners did not play them.

“They had a terrific year,” Henson said. “We didn’t get to play all the teams in the East this year. But we’re excited. We’ve got great respect for them. They’re clearly one of the best teams in the East and the No. 1 seed. We know what Bassey will do, and it’s not a one-man show. You know, and they’ve got some other really, really good players. It’ll take a great effort. But, shoot our guys are fired up. They’re excited.”

UTSA takes high expectations into the postseason

UTSA coach Steve Henson waves to the fans while walking off the court Thursday following the Roadrunners' final home game of the season. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA coach Steve Henson has willed his team to an 8-2 record down the stretch in Conference USA and 9-2 overall leading into the C-USA championships. — Photo by Joe Alexander

High-scoring offense. Capable defense. Positive mindset. The UTSA Roadrunners seem to have everything in order in terms of elements necessary to make a run in the postseason.

They’ll put it all to the test at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday when they meet the Charlotte 49ers in Frisco in the first round of the Conference USA championships.

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA beat UAB 96-79 in Conference USA on the Roadrunners' senior day for Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace and Phoenix Ford on Feb. 27, 2021, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA newcomer Cedrick Alley Jr. has emerged as a defensive stopper and a capable perimeter shooter during UTSA’s 9-2 streak. — Photo by Joe Alexander

One of the best things going for the Roadrunners right now is momentum — they’ve won 9 of their last 11.

Charlotte, meanwhile, has lost eight straight.

“Everybody’s going to head to Frisco with a different speech for their guys,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said on a zoom conference Monday morning. “But, yeah, in a perfect world you need to be healthy. You need to be fresh. Guys still need to enjoy being around each other. We’ve felt that with our guys.

“For the last two weeks, with the exception of Adrian (Rodriguez) we’ve been pretty healthy. I mean, very healthy.

“There’s some guys constantly getting treatment, trying to stretch out, but we’re in pretty good shape physically,” Henson said. “We’re playing better basketball. We’ve won 9 out of 11. Confidence is high. Spirits are high. Our expectations are high. That’s really what you want when you head into conference tournament play.”

UTSA enters the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the C-USA West. Charlotte is No. 5 in the C-USA East. Henson said he knows what 49ers coaches are telling their players.

“Charlotte is a much better team than what they’ve shown in the the last six ball games,” he said. “So they’re talking to their guys about a fresh start. They played well against Marshall (in the) second game (last weekend). They’re on a clean slate, ready to play better basketball. But I like where we’re at, and that’s what we’re concerned about right now.”

Jhivvan Jackson. UTSA beat Southwestern Adventist from Keene, Texas, 123-43 in a non-conference game on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jhivvan Jackson led the C-USA in scoring at 20.7 points per game en route to first-team, all-conference honors for the third straight season. — Photo by Joe Alexander

For the 49ers, the task will center on slowing a Roadrunners’ offensive attack that has averaged 82.5 points in its last 11 games. Led by guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, UTSA is shooting 47.9 percent in that stretch.

“It’s such a good feeling, knowing that everybody can step up at any moment,” Rodriguez said. “What I enjoy the most out of that, is that we all trust each other. You know, we trust each other to make that extra pass. To give the ball to the man that’s open. Whenever we need it. And everybody makes plays. The right plays. Especially recently. The most recent games.

“The ball movement is beautiful. With great shots. That shows that you can trust each other.”

Coming off a knee injury, Rodriguez played 16 minutes last week against Southwestern Adventist and is expected to be ready to play against the 49ers.

Records

Charlotte 9-15, 5-11
UTSA 14-10, 9-7

Looking ahead

If the Roadrunners win Wednesday, they would advance to Thursday’s quarterfinals against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky, featuring 6-foot-11 center and former San Antonio schoolboy Charles Bassey, is the No. 1 seed in the C-USA East.

Two victories would send the Roadrunners into Friday’s semifinals against either the UAB Blazers, the Marshall Thundering Herd or the Rice Owls. Rice won Tuesday on opening night, eliminating Southern Miss, 61-52.

UTSA senior Keaton Wallace goes to the bench in the second half Thursday in the Roadrunners' final home game of the season. - photo by Joe Alexander

Senior Keaton Wallace goes to the bench in the second half last Thursday in the Roadrunners’ final home game. Wallace enters the postseason averaging 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The Thundering Herd and the Owls will play Wednesday at 6 p.m., with the winner moving on to the quarterfinals to meet the Blazers, the No. 2 seed in the C-USA West Division.

The semifinals are set for Friday and the finals on Saturday.

Western Kentucky, UAB (No. 2, West), Louisiana Tech (No. 1, West) and Old Dominion (No. 2, East) all have byes into Thursday’s quarterfinals, meaning that each would need to win three games in three days to win the tournament. Teams playing on Wednesday, like UTSA, would need to win four games in four days.

In the C-USA, the seventh-seeded Houston Cougars in 2010 were the last team to win four times in four days to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Since then, three teams seeded outside the top four (Middle Tennessee in 2015, Old Dominion in 2016 and Marshall in 2017) have won three games to play in the C-USA finals. Each one of them ran out of steam and lost in the championship game to a team that only had to win twice to get there.

Quotable

In a zoom interview Monday, Wallace said he thinks the Roadrunners have enough depth on the roster to win four games this week. “Most definitely,” he said. “We have confidence in all our teammates. Recently, we’ve been probably like eight-nine (players) deep in our rotation. Everybody plays their part. Everybody chips in. We’ve had a lot of success the last few games, so we expect to keep that going.”

Notable

NCAA tournament selections will be announced on Sunday. At the moment, two prominent media projections have installed Western Kentucky as the only C-USA team to make the NCAAs. Jerry Palm of cbssports.com projects the Hilltoppers as a No. 12 seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has penciled them in as a No. 13 seed.

Kemba Walker’s 10-year-old miracle still resonates

Ten years have passed since guard Kemba Walker led the UConn Huskies on a wild ride to the Big East Conference title and, ultimately, to the NCAA title.

It was perhaps the only time in recent memory that a school’s performance in a major conference tournament ever equaled that of an ensuing ride at the national level in terms of how fans would come to view the accomplishment years after the fact.

What the Huskies did at Madison Square Garden in 2011 still seems unthinkable. They won five game in five days to win the Big East crown.

All that comes to mind for me today with the Conference USA championships opening in Frisco.

For Southern Miss and Rice, playing today in the preliminary round for the right to advance into the main bracket, Walker’s achievement stands as a testament that anything can happen in a tournament setting.

Even if you have to win as many as five games in five days to reach the NCAA’s Big Dance.

For seven other C-USA teams who start play on Wednesday, they’ll need to win four in four days. That eight-team group includes the UTSA Roadrunners, who open the tournament Wednesday afternoon against Charlotte.

Finally, for the select four with byes into Thursday’s quarterfinals, the dream can be secured with three wins in three days.

From a historical perspective, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, UAB Blazers, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and Old Dominion Monarchs would seem to hold a massive advantage over the others.

In 24 previous C-USA tournaments — last year’s wasn’t completed because of the pandemic — the conference has never crowned a champion that won five games in five days, and only two previous tournaments in years past have been structured in such a way, with five rounds. In all the others, only four champions have been crowned after winning four games in four days.

According to the brackets, only the 1997 Marquette Golden Eagles, the 1999 Charlotte 49ers, the 2000 Saint Louis Billikens and the 2010 Houston Cougars have danced through the C-USA tournament with an improbable 4-0 record during a 96-hour period. To me, it was surprising to find that while going through the records.

Going into my research, I really didn’t think I’d find more than one or two.

As a long-time hoops fan who probably has spent far too much time in my life following March Madness, I could only think of one other situation when a team pulled off such a head-slapping achievement.

Going in, I remembered that the 2006 Syracuse Orange did the four-in-four thing at another memorable Big East tournament.

But I had forgotten the account of the team’s championship celebration, when one reporter pointed out that Syracuse star Gerry McNamara had made a bigger splash in the New York tabloids that week than even Paris Hilton.

I asked UTSA coach Steve Henson on a recent zoom conference if he had a favorite memory of a team that had won four games in a conference tournament, and he didn’t know of one right off the top of his head.

“When we were coaching at UNLV, I think we probably just won three in a row in two different years,” he said. “I don’t think it was a four-game situation. Those memories are pretty special. There was a stretch in the Mountain West where New Mexico was always good. San Diego State was always good. Two years in particular, us and BYU were the two best teams.

“BYU won the regular season two years in a row. Then we knocked them off in the conference tournament two years in a row. That was pretty special. Unbelievable atmosphere.

“In the Mountain West, there could not have two semifinal games … with a better atmosphere that we had in those games at the Thomas and Mack Center (in Las Vegas). San Diego State traveled well. BYU traveled well. New Mexico traveled well. Atmosphere was unbelievable … For us to beat the regular-season champions two years in a row, was pretty special.

“To win four in a row is a little bit tougher, but that’s our task.”

Hey. it is a tall task. But it’s not as rare as you might think. As a matter of fact, the Appalachian State Mountaineers on Monday night completed a four-wins-in- four-days romp through the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

Michigan did it in 2017 in the Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C. after its charter air craft, en route to the event, slid off the runway and crashed. At the time, Wolverines coach John Beilein said his players were “a little banged up and shook up” after the experience, but then they went on to beat Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin on consecutive days.

Austin Peay did it in 2016 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Houston, with Tom Penders in his final year as a Division I head coach, was the last team in Conference USA to pull it off. In 2010, with a team led by Aubrey Coleman, Kelvin Lewis, Maurice McNeil and San Antonio’s Adam Brown, Houston claimed the C-USA crown as the No. 7 seed. The Cougars knocked off East Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss and, finally, top-seeded UTEP in one remarkable week in Tulsa.

UTSA, in turn, has won three in three days but never four. The Roadrunners did the three-in-three thing in 1988 in Daytona Beach, Fla., when they claimed their first NCAA berth out of the old Trans America Athletic Conference. They won two games in 1999, three in 2004 and three in 2011 in their other three conference title conquests. But, never in a three-day period as they did under the late Ken Burmeister in ’88.

So, boiling it all down, the Roadrunners will face an uphill challenge this week rivaling a drive up the winding roads on Pike’s Peak.

At the same time, they do have a couple of dangerous offensive threats in Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace. They do have some confidence instilled by a 9-2 record over their last 11 games. And they did win some of those games with defense that seems much-more suited to conference tournament-style play than what fans may have seen last November and December.

All that’s missing, if you look at it from a historical perspective, is magic.

It’s the magic that some fans in New York are still talking about 10 years after Walker scored 130 points (combined) on five opponents, turning his five-day stay in the city into the stuff of basketball legend.

C-USA honors go to UTSA’s Jackson, Wallace, Ivy-Curry

Jordan Ivy-Curry. UTSA beat Southwestern Adventist from Keene, Texas, 123-43 in a non-conference game on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jordan Ivy-Curry finished the regular season fourth on the team in scoring at 7.1 points per game. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Haunted by poor shooting through his first eight games in college basketball, UTSA freshman Jordan Ivy-Curry eventually re-discovered his touch.

As a result, Ivy-Curry started to flourish as an all-around player in his first year with the Roadrunners, and on Monday, he joined seniors Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace in winning honors announced by Conference USA.

For the third year in a row, Jackson was named first-team all-conference. Also for the third straight year, Wallace was named to the second team. This time, they were joined by Ivy-Curry, who was named to the C-USA all-freshman team.

The Roadrunners, one of the hottest teams in the conference, were scheduled to practice in San Antonio for the last time Monday afternoon before boarding a bus bound for Frisco. They’ll work out again Tuesday in Frisco as the tournament opens at The Star with preliminary round games.

On Wednesday afternoon, they Roadrunners will play the Charlotte 49ers in a second-round game.

‘Juice’ makes his mark

In the first third of a 24-game season, Ivy-Curry had yet to live up to his reputation as a high-octane scorer. As a high school senior, he averaged more than 30 points a game at La Marque. But with the Roadrunners, his shot would not fall — at least, not initially.

In his first eight games, Ivy-Curry was playing off the bench and shooting a meager 32.6 from the field. From three-point range, he was way off the mark — 0-for-13. All that started to change on Jan. 2. ‘Juice’ hit a three out of the corner and finished 5 of 14 overall in a road loss at Rice. Coaches stayed with him, and he kept getting better.

For the season, he played in all 24 games, averaging 7.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 19.7 minutes. He was also good in terms of moving the ball on offense and in defending the perimeter. Down the stretch, his three-point shooting touch returned. In his last 16 games, he hit 22 of 45 from distance for 48.9 percent.

Rodriguez improving

UTSA coach Steve Henson said in a zoom conference with reporters that junior forward Adrian Rodriguez has practiced well. “In another 2 or 3 days, hopefully he’ll be close to 100 percent,” the coach said.

Rodriguez hurt his knee on Feb. 6 in at Florida International and sat out the next three games. On Feb. 27, he played two minutes at home against the UAB Blazers. Last Thursday, Henson played him 16 minutes in UTSA’s tune-up against Southwestern Adventist. Rodriguez had 12 points and seven rebounds.

Trying to make history

For the Roadrunners to claim the C-USA’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, they will need to win four games in four days in the pressure cooker of a single-elimination event.

UTSA has never executed such a four-in-four conference tournament run in its previous 39 seasons of basketball.

In 1988, a Ken Burmeister-coached UTSA squad claimed the school’s first NCAA berth when it won three games in three days to claim the Trans America Athletic Conference title at Daytona Beach, Fla.

In 1999, the first of two Tim Carter-coached NCAA teams won two games in two days for the Southland championship in Shreveport, La.

In 2004, Carter took his team to the NCAA dance once again as Southland titlists with three wins in five days. The Roadrunners won in San Antonio, in Hammond, La., and then in San Antonio again (against Stephen F. Austin).

In 2011, the Brooks Thompson-coached Roadrunners won three games in four days to win a Southland championship at the Merrell Center in Katy.

Coming up

Conference USA tournament. UTSA vs. Charlotte, Thursday at 5:30 p.m., at The Star in Frisco.

Records

UTSA 14-10, 9-7
Charlotte 9-15, 5-11

UTSA set to play Charlotte in C-USA championships

The UTSA Roadrunners will open play in the Conference USA basketball championships against the Charlotte 49ers, according to the bracket announced Saturday.

The 14-team men’s tournament starts Tuesday with a pair of first-round games at The Star in Frisco. As the No. 4 seed in the West, UTSA will open play in the second round on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. against the 49ers, the No. 5 seed in the East.

UTSA enters tournament play having won nine of its last 11, while Charlotte has lost eight straight. The two teams were scheduled to play Feb. 19-20 in North Carolina, but the games were scrapped because of the winter storm in Texas.

If the Roadrunners beat the 49ers, they would advance to play in the third round Thursday against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, the No. 1 seed in the East. UTSA will need to win four games in four days to secure the C-USA’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

UTSA hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 2011.

Records

Charlotte 9-15, 5-11
UTSA 14-10, 9-7

Notable

Please click on the link for full details on the C-USA championships.