Another serious challenge awaits the slumping UTSA Roadrunners when they host the Florida International Panthers on Thursday night.
Riding high, FIU is coming off two Conference USA victories at home over the Marshall Thundering Herd and the the powerful Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Against Western Kentucky, the Panthers (12-7, 2-4) knocked down 16 three-point shots, including seven of them by players off their bench, and won 86-83.
But in the Roadrunners (7-13, 0-7), FIU may not see the faltering ball club that some might expect.
The Panthers likely will not encounter the player groupings that struggled so mightily to score last week in a pair of five-point losses, on the road and at home, to the UTEP Miners.
Losers of six straight, UTSA is expected to play both Dhieu Deing and Jordan Ivy-Curry after the two shot-making guards returned to practice this week. UTSA also will feature a rejuvenated Darius McNeill.
Decimated up and down the roster by Covid and sundry other issues, the Roadrunners called on McNeill to become a scoring threat against the Miners — and he delivered.
The senior from Houston averaged 19.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in the two losses.
McNeill, a transfer from SMU who started his career with two seasons at Cal, looked as confident and as aggressive as he has been all season.
UTSA coach Steve Henson said McNeill “just relaxed a little bit” and then benefited from increased playing time.
In getting McNeill to “take a deep breath,’ Henson said coaches “tried not to point out every little detail” in what they wanted from him.
“We tried to free his mind up a little more,” the coach said. “Just try to get him to go out there and relax and play.
“I think that started the process … Certainly, a lot of guys are more comfortable when they’re getting bigger minutes. That, certainly, helped him a lot.”
On Sunday, when the Roadrunners rallied in the second half, McNeill had the Miners on their heels, hitting 4 of 7 from the field and 6 of 7 at the free throw line.
“The opportunity for him to get to the rim was there,” Henson said. “The way they defended on the perimeter, it kind of opened up the paint for some driving opportunities.
“In the transition game, he had several bust outs on long rebounds or quick outlets when he was able to get down there and attack.
“A few weeks ago, he was finally taking a breath and relaxing. Our approach to coaching him maybe changed a little bit.
“Then I think just the extended minutes and having the ball in his hands a little more helped him.”
For the season, McNeill is shooting 44 percent from the field and is averaging only 6.6 points.
UTEP coach Joe Golding said McNeill caused problems with his athleticism and determination.
“Good player,” Golding said. “(He’s) obviously talented and has played at some high levels. You can tell he wants to win. You can tell he’s invested, and it means something to him.”
Thursday — FIU at UTSA, 7 p.m.
Saturday — FAU at UTSA, 1 p.m.
FIU 12-7, 2-4
UTSA 7-13, 0-7
UTSA traveled to El Paso last Thursday with eight players, six on scholarship. The Roadrunners got two players back from Covid protocols for the rematch in San Antonio on Sunday.
By Tuesday, they had Deing and McNeill on the floor together for the first time since December.
Deing had been away from the team for the last seven games as he tried to sort out whether he wanted to turn pro or remain as a college athlete. Ivy-Curry has been out the last four in Covid protocols.
Skid hits six
The Roadrunners haven’t won since Jan. 3 when they defeated Dallas Christian, 101-48, in a non-conference game at the Convocation Center.
Since then, they have lost to Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech (at home), Old Dominion and Charlotte (on the road) and to UTEP twice (on the road last Thursday, and then at home on Sunday).
The six-game skid is the longest in Henson’s six years as head coach. Previously, his teams suffered five-game losing streaks to start the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.
It is the longest losing streak for a UTSA men’s basketball team since the Roadrunners dropped nine in a row near the end of the 2015-16 season, former coach Brooks Thompson’s last year at the school.