What game winner? UTSA’s Czumbel returns to play Rice

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

Sophomore guard Erik Czumbel has emerged as a key player in the UTSA rotation, averaging 7.4 points per game in 23.9 minutes off the bench. — Photo by Joe Alexander

When UTSA guard Erik Czumbel was asked recently what he remembered about last year’s game at Rice, his basketball personality emerged in a subtle way, in something that he did not say.

“Last year, it was a competitive game,” Czumbel said. “I remember, like, they hit a lot of shots. A lot of contested threes. They played really well, and it came down to the end of the game. We played not so well in the first half. But we picked it up in the second half.”

UTSA guard Erik Czumbel, playing against Sul Ross on Dec. 4, 2020, at the Convocation Center, started two of UTSA's first six games of the season and averages 7.2 points. - photo by Joe Alexander

Czumbel, a sophomore from Verona, Italy, gives the Roadrunners a physical defensive presence in the backcourt. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Oh, and, one other thing.

Just for the record, the 6-foot-3 former Italian U-18 national team member did hit the game-winning layup with one second remaining in the Roadrunners’ pulsating 90-88 victory over the Owls.

But in keeping with Czumbel’s low-key persona as a ball player, reporters more or less had to pry that out of him with a follow-up question in a zoom conference earlier this week.

“So, Erik,” he was asked, “what do you remember about UTSA’s last offensive possession?”

Czumbel smiled.

“I know I scored the game winner last year,” he said. “They had an inbounds play from the baseline. I think we got a deflection. I remember Byron (Frohnen), I think, passing me the ball. I knew there were not that many seconds left. I just took off and tried to get a layup. And, so it went in.

“Happy ending.”

The subject of Czumbel’s heroics a year ago come up again as the Roadrunners (4-3) prepare to play the Owls (6-2) on Friday and again on Saturday in Houston. On both days, tipoff is at 2 p.m. at Tudor Fieldhouse.

In Czumbel, the Roadrunners have found themselves a player who doesn’t really like talking about himself, doesn’t necessarily have to shoot to affect the outcome of a game and as a result is endearing himself to coaches who love the attitude.

When he does shoot, the results speak with increasing volume.

Playing off more heavily guarded Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the combo guard from Verona, Italy, connects on 57.7 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from three, all while averaging 7.4 points.

“Just a great teammate,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “(He’s) a very, very tough, focused and conscientious player. Talk about every-day guys. He’s an every-day guy. He’s very, very tough physically. He tries to do exactly what you tell him.

“He’s a word-for-word guy. You tell him to go and pick on the wing at a certain angle, and he’s going to go and do it exactly the way you tell him to do it.”

Czumbel arrived in San Antonio in the summer of 2019 as a player UTSA coaches hoped would fill the void left by another Italian, former three-year starter Giovanni de Nicolao.

When De Nicolao broached the idea about leaving UTSA after his junior year to play pro ball in his native country, the Roadrunners started scanning the horizon.

It wasn’t long before they spied Czumbel, rising up in the ranks of the Italian junior circuit.

He had played for Team Italy in the FIBA U-18 European Championships, where he averaged 8.3 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds.

Rotnei Clark, one of the greatest scorers in Oklahoma high school basketball history, helped facilitate the Roadrunners’ contact with Czumbel.

A player once recruited by Henson, Clark was starting for a pro team in Italy at the time, with Czumbel backing him up.

“He guards me every day. He’s an unbelievable defender,” Clark told Henson on the phone one day. “He’s tough. He’s coachable.”

Replied Henson, “That’s what we want. That’s what we need.”

As a result, Czumbel visited UTSA in the spring of 2019 and committed, reportedly shunning Loyola Marymount and another school that he had visited.

Last year, he played 32 games and started 24. This year, he’s played in all seven of UTSA’s games and has started two. He’s averaging 23.9 minutes.

UTSA assistant coach Scott Thompson is most happy to see Czumbel make steady progress.

It’s also not surprising at all to Thompson that Czumbel, who will turn 21 on Jan. 11, doesn’t seem fazed by playing on the road at Oklahoma or Oregon State.

In Europe, Czumbel played a lot of games in second division games against older players.

“The European game, there’s a toughness to it,” Thompson said. “They’re all about team. They’re all about winning.”

After a rocky start that included two bad losses at UT Rio Grande Valley and Oklahoma, the Roadrunners have started to play better.

After nearly upsetting Oregon State on the road, they’ve won two straight, notching lopsided home victories over Our Lady of the Lake and Lamar.

Czumbel is encouraged.

He said he likes the way the team is getting more production out of more players. He said he also likes the way the Roadrunners utilized a break between the Lamar and the Rice games.

“I think we’re working really hard,” he said. “We still have a lot of improvement (to make) … But we’ve seen some improvements already.

“I think from the first few games, coach said this is the best offensive ranking we’ve had in five years. With Jhivvan and Keaton not shooting it really well, it doesn’t feel that way.

“It’s amazing how it is. Because, we’re getting to the line more. We have a lot of players that don’t play big minutes but still average high points. So I think we’re improving every day. We look good.”

Henson said Czumbel has earned his coaches’ and teammates’ respect.

“Right now he’s coming off the bench, but he’s a starter and he’s going to be in the game at key points in the game,” the coach said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. His teammates have a lot of confidence in him. He affects the game, even when he’s not scoring.”

And when he does shoot it? Often times, good things happen for the Roadrunners on those occasions, as well.

Just ask the Rice Owls.

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