Behind a 20-point performance from guard Brandon Alston and strong games from the frontcourt, the men's basketball team shot 54.2 percent from the field and picked up their second win of the season, a 78-68 victory over Texas-Rio Grande Valley at McCamish Pavilion as part of the Ramblin' Wreck Showcase.
The Jackets, who were already playing shorthanded thanks to the suspensions of guards Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson, learned earlier on Wednesday that they would be without two more members of the program in the near term. Point guard Justin Moore was suspended for two games (this one and Friday’s contest against North Texas), and assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie was placed on administrative leave.
On the court, that meant even more playing time for the freshmen, and rookie guards Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood started in the backcourt alongside Alston, a graduate transfer. All three ended up having strong games: Alvarado and Haywood each had six assists, with Haywood adding 11 points and four steals, and Alston had six rebounds and a team-high 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Up front, Ben Lammers and A.D. Gueye each had double-digit points and seven rebounds, and Gueye tacked on five assists.
UTRGV opened the scoring with a bucket in the paint by forward Adonis Rwabigwi, and that ended up being their only lead of the game. A couple possessions later, Alvarado stole the ball and turned it into a fast-break layup at the other end, kick-starting a 14-0 run that spanned the next seven minutes of the game and featured a three-pointer from Gueye and a Lammers dunk on another break.
Josh Pastner went to the bench early and often, getting his two frontcourt freshmen, Moses Wright and Evan Cole, into the game early. The duo each played just 11 minutes but contributed quickly, with Cole getting his first bucket about a minute after entering the game to put Tech ahead 16-6.
The teams traded baskets for a few minutes, with Tech holding the lead but struggling to pull away. UTRGV closed to within three points a few times, but Tech did not let them get any closer, twice increasing the lead on three-pointers by Alston and Haywood. The Jackets ultimately took a 32-27 lead into the locker room.
After halftime, Tech broke the game open. The Jackets attacked the basket to start the second half, getting buckets from Lammers and Gueye at the rim and a layup by Alvarado, and they went on a 13-2 run to open up a 45-29 lead at the first TV timeout.
The Vaqueros started chipping away at the lead, particularly when guard Nick Dixon started warming up from the field. Dixon scored on a layup following a Tech turnover to make it 49-41 at the 12-minute mark, and a minute later, he was fouled by Lammers on a three-point attempt and drained all three free throws to keep UTRGV within eight at 52-44.
A Johnny Crnogorac dunk cut Tech’s lead to six points at the 10-minute mark... but that was when Alston took over. Over the next two-plus minutes, the graduate transfer from Lehigh connected on a midrange jumper, a three-pointer, and a pair of free throws to help Tech build the lead up to 15 points at 61-46. The Jackets kept the lead at double-digits the rest of the way, building it to 19 points at 73-54 on another Gueye three-pointer with 3:22 left. Pastner went to his bench in the final minute, giving several of the non-scholarship players their first in-game appearance at McCamish, and Tech wrapped up a 78-68 victory to improve to 2-1 overall and 2-0 at home.
Alston led the Jackets with 20 points, and his hot stretch in the second half helped to put the game away. Dixon led all players in scoring with 23 points, nine of which came in the final minute as UTRGV battled back against Tech’s reserves. The Vaqueros also got a strong game from reserve Lesley Varner, who had eight points and eight rebounds, six of which were on the offensive end. Rebounding in general was a struggle for the Jackets, as the teams were even with 34 rebounds and the Vaqueros picked up 17 offensive boards.
Still, Tech came away with a win with a very shorthanded roster, and things should get easier going forward. The Jackets face North Texas on Friday and will get senior guard Tadric Jackson back for that game, adding experience and scoring punch to the backcourt ahead of the Nov. 28 home contest against Northwestern.