EDINBURG — Tied at 70 with less than five minutes remaining, the UTRGV Vaqueros men’s basketball team seemed headed for another photo finish after winning Monday’s contest against Western Illinois on a buzzer-beater.
The Vaqueros didn’t leave anything to chance this time around, however, going on a 21-9 run to close out the contest to defeat the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks 91-79 on Tuesday at the Bert Ogden Arena.
“I just think our guys were well conditioned,” UTRGV head coach Matt Figger said. “We’re pretty good offensively, as you guys can see. We’re 23rd in the country in pace. I think we’re fifth in the country in transition baskets. We’re shooting over 50% as a team from the field. We’re a good offensive team. We just have to become a better defensive team at times.”
Senior forward Justin Johnson came up huge during the second half for the Vaqueros, scoring 19 of his game-high 26 points during the final period. Seven of those came during UTRGV’s run to close out the contest.
His biggest shots came from the free throw line, converting 9-of-10 after one day after missing two critical free throws the night before.
“They’re free points and I’m mad at myself when I miss them,” Johnson said. “Last night I missed two big free throws, so I wanted to get those back. I’m working everyday on it. I know I’m going to get fouled a lot so working on those free throws is big for me.”
Sophomore point guard Will Johnston added a career-high 20 points, also chipping in four rebounds and five assists.
His 3-pointer with 2:14 left all but sealed the Vaqueros victory, giving UTRGV a seven-point advantage.
“I’m not going to lie, Coach (Figger) was on the sideline, and I could hear him in my ear saying. ‘You better make this.’ There was that added pressure, so I had to knock it down or otherwise coach would have been on me,” Johnston said with a laugh.
“I just wanted to make a play for the team and all that. The guy stepped up, so I hit him with a move, and I was open, so I shot it.”
Junior Ahren Freeman and sophomore Sherman Brashear added a pair of double-digit scoring performances for UTRGV, with Freeman netting a career-high tying 19 points and Brashear scoring 11.
Nik Mains led the Lumberjacks with 22 points and six rebounds. Liam Lloyd added 12 points and four assists and Jalen Cone chipped in 14 points with five assists and two steals.
The victory marks the second straight for the Vaqueros and their fourth in their last five contests, improving to 4-2 overall.
They return to action at 3 p.m. Saturday, taking on No. 4 Texas (4-0) at Gregory Gymnasium in Austin.
“The mindset is just to go in there and play hard,” Johnson said. “Coach told us last week that he wanted us to win these two games so we could go in with some momentum. I think that’s what we are doing. Guys are in the locker room feeling good right now. That is big for us. We’re just going down there and playing as hard as we can.”