By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
The UTSA Roadrunners were scheduled to hit the highway on Monday afternoon, headed for Frisco.
The Conference USA tournament.
Because the tournament opener against the Rice Owls remained a few days away, one of the most pressing questions following a morning practice at the Convocation Center had to do with what was on the menu for lunch on the bus ride.
“Probably Jason’s Deli or Firehouse Subs, something light, like that,” UTSA guard John Buggs III said, smiling.
News flash. The Roadrunners didn’t dine on subs this time. This time, they had chicken sandwiches.
“I think it’s Chick-fil-A,” Roadrunners coach Steve Henson said later. “And then we’ll probably stop at Buc-ee’s.”
No matter the delicacy awaiting them, the 11th-seeded Roadrunners hope to spice it up considerably on the opening day of the tournament Wednesday night when they take on the No. 6 Owls at The Star, the multi-use training site for the Dallas Cowboys.
“We’re excited,” Buggs said. “We’re stoked as a team. You know, coach is in good spirits. He’s coaching us harder than ever. Man, we really believe we can do something special.”
To make all the noise that they’d like to make this week, the Roadrunners (10-21, 4-16) will first need to map out a plan to beat the Owls (17-14, 8-12).
UTSA split with Rice during the regular season, losing at home and then winning a few weeks ago on the road.
In both games, the Roadrunners had good success scoring, with the outcome both times coming down to how they fared on the defensive end.
“I feel like Rice is a great match up for us,” Buggs said. “We played them very close both times. With us drawing Rice, we couldn’t have a better first opponent, both in the matchups and what they’re going to do.”
Center Max Fiedler and guards Quincy Olivari and Travis Evee are the Owls’ top players.
Olivari scored 30 points in an 88-81 overtime victory over the Roadrunners at UTSA back in January.
In that same game, Fiedler, a center with a wide array of ball skills, produced a triple double as Rice overcame an 18-point deficit to win in the extra period.
“It’s kind of hard to simulate Fiedler,” Buggs said. “But we know exactly what they’re going to do and who’s going to take the shots at crunch time. So I feel like we’re very prepared for what’s coming up on Wednesday.”
In the rematch between the teams on Feb. 16 in Houston, UTSA pulled off a surprise of sorts, winning 84-79.
The Roadrunners shot 52.5 percent from the field, and Buggs led four UTSA players in double figures with 23 points.
In that game, Buggs, a redshirt sophomore, hit eight of 10 shots from the field. Included in the barrage were five 3-point baskets in only seven attempts.
For the 6-foot-3 Louisiana native, it was the start of a hot streak. Starting with the Rice game, Buggs leads UTSA in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game in the last five coming into the C-USA tournament.
During that stretch, he has hit a sizzling 54.5 percent from the field and 52.9 percent on threes. From three-point distance, Buggs has launched plenty of them (34) and has knocked down plenty (18) to give opponents fits.
Guard Japhet Medor has also played well over the last five, averaging an even 16 points. Not coincidentally, with both backcourt standouts clicking, UTSA has posted a 3-2 record coming into Frisco.
Buggs, who averages 11 points on 39 percent shooting from the field and 40.1 percent from three for the season, said he isn’t doing anything differently from a practice standpoint to account for his higher percentages.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “Man, I have attacked every day the same way. It’s kind of like, I was putting in a lot of work in the first half of the season and wasn’t necessarily getting the results.
“After awhile, if you keep doing the right things in the dark, it’s going to come to the light. I just trusted in the work that I put in.”
As far as Buggs is concerned, the same can be said for the recent success of the team coming on the heels of a discouraging 11-game losing streak.
“I just felt like we’ve always kind of been right there,” he said. “Two or three plays went bad and it just led into droughts. But, I feel like, we never wavered as a team. We almost had moments of breaking up. But we stayed together throughout the losses.
“I mean, I felt like the basketball gods owe us at this point. So, it’s March, and you know in March anything can happen. So we’re looking forward to that anything.”
Wednesday’s openers at Frisco
Women — (8) FIU vs. (9) Charlotte, 11 a.m.; (7) North Texas vs. (10) UAB, 1:30 p.m.; (6) UTSA vs. (11) FAU, 2 p.m.
Men — (8) Western Kentucky vs. (9) UTEP, 5:30 p.m.; (7) FIU vs. (10) Louisiana Tech, 8 p.m.; (6) Rice vs. (11) UTSA, 8:30 p.m.
Seedings in parentheses