EDINBURG — One year ago, the UTRGV men’s basketball team was beginning its typical game-day routine with optimism running high for good reason.
The Vaqueros were about to embark on their postseason journey in the quarterfinals of the WAC Tournament and brought a lot of momentum with them into Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
UTRGV had locked up the No. 2 seed after its best regular-season finish in program history since joining the WAC and entered having won eight of its last 10 games.
The Vaqueros were set to play Cal State Bakersfield on a Thursday evening, needing three wins in three days to secure the first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance in school history.
“We were ready,” UTRGV interim head coach Jai Steadman said. “We were hot last year and ready to go before boom, then we were on a red-eye going home and the world changed as we know it.”
UTRGV, however, never got that opportunity or saw the court at the 2020 WAC Tournament as news of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation and brought college basketball and everyday life to a complete standstill.
Rather than playing through the weekend and into the NCAA Tournament, the Vaqueros instead found themselves on a flight back from Las Vegas to Edinburg with their season brought to an abrupt end and the reality of life as a student-athlete during a global pandemic quickly setting in.
“Last year we were really let down. We were really excited to play and we didn’t get to,” senior center Anthony Bratton said. “That has just made all the guys really excited to go to Vegas (this year) and play. … Personally, I’ve never played in a WAC Tournament, so it’s going to be big for me. We have a lot of new guys on the team this year so it should be big for everybody.”
Now, on the one-year anniversary of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of the 2019-20 season, the UTRGV is back in Las Vegas hoping to pick up where it left off.
This time the Vaqueros are facing an uphill battle instead of riding a wave of momentum.
They will be without their head coach, Lew Hill, who died unexpectedly in early February after leading the team to its best start in nearly two decades.
The team will also be without its leading scorer, Sean Rhea, who took a leave of absence from the team two weeks ago and will not return for UTRGV’s postseason push.
And the Vaqueros will be without their lofty seeding this time too, entering the WAC Tournament with the sixth seed among six participating squads after a chaotic and unpredictable conference schedule.
More than anything, though, the Vaqueros are grateful that this time around — win or lose — the fate of their season will be decided on the court amid a season riddled with uncertainty and chock-full of adversity on and away from the court.
“It’s a blessing that we get to go out there and play this year. That’s the biggest thing: being grateful we get to go out to Vegas and play this year,” senior point guard Javon Levi said. “Why not go out there and compete and give it your all? A lot of people didn’t play a lot of games this year and didn’t make it to their conference tournaments. Some people didn’t finish the season, so we can’t take any moment for granted.”
UTRGV can still clinch its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament and a WAC championship for the first time with three wins in three days on the court at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
But what matters most to the Vaqueros in 2021 is overcoming the odds to finish what they started together long ago and focus on basketball once again.
“We’ve also got to keep playing hard and stay together through it all because we’re going to Vegas. Everybody is 0-0 there and anything can happen,” Levi said. “At the end of the day, we still have enough pieces and enough talent to go out there and beat everybody. That’s all we can do: look forward to what’s coming up and leave everything else in the past.”
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