UTRGV rides zone defense to bounce-back win against Chicago State

EDINBURG — UTRGV men’s basketball coach Lew Hill believes in certain schematic principles. Playing at a fast pace and running full-court, man-to-man defense are integral parts of his ideal blueprint.

He also believes in putting his team in the best possible position to succeed. Sometimes, that requires compromise.

“We haven’t been doing a good job of defending the drive. As a good coach, you have to change,” Hill said. “I’m a man-to-man guy, but it’s about winning. So, we played zone.”

UTRGV played zone on about 90 percent of possessions against Chicago State on Saturday, Hill said, pulling out an 83-75 win at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

The Cougars shot 33.3 percent in the first half and 43.5 percent for the game, but 12 of Chicago State’s points came on the fast break, before UTRGV’s zone had a chance to set.

“I think the zone was great tonight,” guard Lew Stallworth said. “It was a great adjustment by coach, and it was good for us to follow the game plan.”

The win moves UTRGV to 15-15 overall and 6-7 in WAC play, snapping a three-game losing skid.

The most recent of those losses was 83-59 against UMKC on Thursday.

“We just got embarrassed on our home floor in front of plus-1,000 people,” Stallworth said of the team’s mentality entering Saturday’s game. “We wanted to come back and give people something to come back and watch and be proud of here in the Valley. That’s all we really wanted to do is play with energy, emotion and effort.”

Hill said man-to-man defense was one of the major weaknesses that was exposed during the three-game slide. All three opponents scored more than 80 points, shooting a combined 51.7 percent.

Point guard Javon Levi said the zone defense helps UTRGV take away the opponent’s top scorer and shores up the team’s issues defending off the dribble.

“It does make it a lot easier, because you aren’t running around chasing,” Levi said. “You’re already packed in on the line. You just have to sit down, guard, backpedal and stay in front of your man.”

Chicago State led most of the first 20 minutes before UTRGV launched into a 15-0 run across the halftime break. The Cougars went 6 minutes and 7 seconds without scoring.

“Last game, we didn’t play our type of basketball,” Levi said. “We didn’t play hard. Wasn’t flying around and stuff like that. This game, we played with much more intensity, much more effort, and we shared the ball a lot more than we did last game.”

Chicago State pulled within five points midway through the fourth quarter, but a 10-0 run gave UTRGV a comfortable 70-55 lead with about 5 minutes to play. UTRGV held Chicago State scoreless for 5:02 around the run.

UTRGV led by 11 with less than two minutes to play, but Chicago State had one more push left. The Cougars scored seven unanswered points to pull within 76-72 with 47 seconds to play, but the Vaqueros hit 7 of 8 at the free-throw line during the final minute to seal the bounce-back win.

“Sometimes, you’re feeling good about yourself, and you come out and not play well,” Hill said, referencing Thursday’s loss. “You need to drop back down a few notches, and then you come back and you fight. We never quit, because I’m not a quitter, so of course they’re not going to quit. That’s what we did.”

UTRGV shot just 28.1 percent during the first half on Saturday before hitting 58.6 percent during the final 20 minutes.

Nick Dixon led UTRGV with 23 points, including a 12-of-13 mark at the free-throw line. Levi posted 10 points with nine assists, Terry Winn hauled in 16 rebounds, and Stallworth scored 14 points, all in the second half.

“Just being confident,” Stallworth said. “It’s been a long season, just trying to get my groove back. I was just confident. I never waver. I’m always in the gym. I knew one day and one moment it would come, so I’m always ready.”

UTRGV closes the regular season when it hosts New Mexico State on Saturday. The WAC Tournament follows on March 8.