EDINBURG — The Vaqueros tightened the defensive screws, crushing Dixie State 82-49 in their WAC opener Friday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
The win, their fourth in the past five games, set a record for the largest margin of victory (33 points) over a conference opponent in program history. At 7-3, the Vaqueros are off to their best start in 16 years.
“We just came out flying well,” said Lew Hill, the fifth-year UTRGV head coach. “The pressure was really good tonight. That’s our game plan — attack.”
The Vaqueros swiped 17 steals and generated 29 Trailblazers turnovers — both season-highs. UTRGV had four players score in double figures led by Sean Rhea with 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Uche Dibiamaka netted 15, followed by Javon Levi with 12 and Chris Freeman with 11.
Levi, a 5-foot-11 guard from Killeen, was a one-man wrecking crew on both ends of the floor, garnering a season-high eight assists, four steals and four rebounds, while shooting 6-for-10. He committed only one turnover in 28 minutes played.
“He’s an extension of me,” Hill said. “He brings the toughness, the grittiness.”
“I feel good,” said Levi, who had missed his previous four games. “I was just glad to be out there to compete with my brothers. I just tried to come out and get our team going, be involved. I wanted to make an impact on defense.”
Levi moved past former Brigham Young Cougars standout and NBA player Danny Ainge for No. 13 all-time in WAC career assists.
Frenetic defense sparked the Vaqueros as they held the Trailblazers to just 49 points, a season low for a UTRGV opponent.
“We’re aggressive all the time,” Hill explained. “We are going to keep attacking. We are what we are.”
Trailing 5-4, the Vaqueros engineered a 15-0 run finished off by Freeman’s 3-pointer with 14:07 left in the first half for a 19-5 lead. Dixie State was never able to close to within double digits again.
Later during the first half, UTRGV ran off a 14-2 run for a 37-13 lead after Dibiamaka drained a 3-pointer.
UTRGV led by 17 at the break, 41-24. The Vaqueros produced another 14-2 run to start the second half, capped by Rob McClain Jr.’s dunk off a missed free throw for a 55-26 lead with 14:48 showing.
Dixie State, based in St. George, Utah, suffered its third straight loss to fall to 4-4 overall and 0-1 in conference. Guard Cameron Gooding led the Trailblazers with 13 points. He made seven of eight free throws.
The Vaqueros outrebounded the Trailblazers 42-26. Jeff Otchere, who stands 6-11 and weighs 240 pounds, made his presence felt with six rebounds and six blocked shots before he fouled out with 6:22 left during the second half.
Having Otchere on the floor, Hill noted, allows them to be more aggressive with their pressure defense.
“He’s our anchor in the back,” Hill said. “He’s back there blocking shots. He brings a different element to our attacking style of defense.”
“We can gamble more,” Levi said. “We can be more aggressive knowing we’ve got him (back there).”
Isaiah Garcia and Nick Mora, former Weslaco Panthers standouts, played the last 83 seconds for UTRGV. Garcia scored on a free throw.
The two teams meet again tonight as part of a doubleheader. Tip off is 6 p.m. at UTRGV Fieldhouse.