EDINBURG — The UTRGV Vaqueros made their competitive return to the basketball court Sunday night at home, a tumultuous two weeks after losing head coach Lew Hill, who died unexpectedly in his sleep hours after the team’s last game against Texas Southern.
It didn’t take long for the Vaqueros, though, to return to their trademark brand of basketball when they took to the hardwood against Dallas Christian.
UTRGV used its physical full-court defense to run away from the visiting Crusaders early en route to a dominant 116-51 victory during an emotional night of basketball inside UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“It was really, really emotional but we’re happy for the win, especially in front of the Hill family,” UTRGV interim coach Jai Steadman said after assuming head-coaching duties for the Vaqueros for the first time Sunday. “It’s been a tough two weeks. We’re very appreciative of the UTRGV Athletic Department, the players, staff and everybody who helped put this on to get us going again. This was all for Coach Hill. It was all very special, and it meant a lot to us.”
“It was great,” junior forward Marek Nelson said. “It’s been almost two or three weeks since we’ve played and obviously a lot has happened since then. For a lot of our guys, the court is a place to express ourselves and free our minds a little bit in a place that’s really healthy. To get back to that game environment means the world to us.”
Wearing black and orange patches emblazoned with the words “peace and love,” as well as their late head coach’s initials, the Vaqueros raced out to an early advantage on the heels of a 7-0 start during the first 50 seconds of play.
Dallas Christian clawed back into the game with a quick 10-0 scoring spurt to trim the deficit down to one, but the Vaqueros responded with a stifling full-court press and transition attack.
The team forced a season-high 45 turnovers that led directly to 48 points and set an all-time program record with 27 steals in its most dominant defensive display of the year.
That opportunistic defense that’s become emblematic of UTRGV’s style of play fueled a 24-0 scoring run during a seven-minute stretch midway through the first half to break the game wide open and give the Vaqueros their first victory in two games during the last 29 days, after a number of canceled contests.
“I think our guys played really, really well tonight,” Nelson said. “This game was more about us and the things we could do tonight. We were focused and we did what we had to do. We played the kind of game we were supposed to play and executed very well.”
The win was a complete team effort for the Vaqueros, who finished the night with five scorers reaching double figures and every player in the scoring column after shooting 50% from the floor as a team.
Junior guard LaQuon Butler led the way for UTRGV offensively with a career-high 22 points, while junior forward Sean Rhea and Nelson added 19 and 18 apiece, respectively.
Junior guard Uche Dibiamaka recorded 15 points, and sophomore forward Quinton Johnson also chipped in 13 points and a team-high six rebounds.
What stood out most from UTRGV’s blowout nonconference win, however, was what was notably absent from the court: Hill.
In the first game at UTRGV Fieldhouse in the past five seasons without the leader of the Vaqueros’ men’s basketball program on the sidelines, a seat was saved for Hill on UTRGV’s sideline.
The late head coach’s seat on the bench was draped with one of his blazers and adorned with his photo and a dry-erase board with the words “peace and love” scribbled across it facing the floor.
The Vaqueros’ coaching staff wore black tracksuits and black ribbons to memorialize their fallen friend and leader, who was honored with a moment of silence before tip-off. Hill’s family was also recognized with a standing ovation from the crowd, officials and both teams in the waning moments of the game.
“Starting off was tough without our head coach, our general,” Butler said. “It meant a lot. We definitely wanted to get out there and do our best for the family, because they were there to see us win. Just like Coach Hill, they want to see us finish this out strong, too.”
UTRGV’s players wore “Lew Hill — peace and love” shirts during pre-game shootarounds. The same shirts covered a row of courtside seats with a bouquet of roses on the opposite side of the floor where Hill’s wife, children and family watched his team roll in a memorable performance.
The victory lifts the Vaqueros to 9-4 on the season and back into the win column for the first time since mid-January.
It also puts UTRGV back on course to accomplish its goal of clinching the first Western Athletic Conference championship in school history in honor of Hill.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity and this was another test,” Steadman said. “We stayed together with one heartbeat as one unit and one family, just like Coach Hill preached. I just kept saying the game things he would always tell us to keep us going.”
UTRGV will return to action for a two-game WAC series against Utah Valley (8-9, 6-3 WAC) on Friday and Saturday in Orem, Utah, with each game set to tip off at 7 p.m.
The Vaqueros will also host a public memorial service for Hill on Tuesday afternoon at UTRGV Fieldhouse before resuming their conference slate.