The UTSA men’s basketball team (13-19, C-USA 7-11) finished their 2019-2020 season at the Conference USA (C-USA) Championship Tournament on Wednesday, March 11. The Roadrunners faced the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers for the third time of the season after tallying one win and one loss in previous meetings. The ‘Runners said farewell to the two seniors on the team, Byron Frohnen and Atem Bior, as they suited up for the last time in the first round of the tournament against the Blazers.
“This is the third time with those guys, and every one of them has been similar in terms of physicality,” head coach Steven Henson said. “They have a great system committed to pounding the ball inside, driving it down there in the paint and crashing the glass hard. We did that to a large degree in the first half and shot a great percentage. We lost a lot of those battles in the first half, and they threw in some threes, which really made it tough on us.”
The Blazers opened the game with a strong lead, claiming 10 of the first 15 points of the game. Junior guard Keaton Wallace brought the ‘Runners up from the scoring deficit by securing his first four three-pointers on the board, recording 14 points early in the first half. Bior accompanied Wallace and freshman center Jacob Germany in scoring as he claimed a basket late in the half, bringing the ‘Runners within one point of the Blazers with less than 10 minutes remaining in the half. The Blazers responded to the ‘Runners’ boards by answering with a 7-0 scoring run. Germany sank two jumpers from the paint in addition to another three pointer from Wallace and a basket from junior guard Jhivvan Jackson. The ‘Runners trailed eight points behind the Blazers, closing the first half 44-38.
The Blazers opened the second half with a seven-point stretch, sparking a defensive awakening from the ‘Runners. Wallace put the ‘Runners on the board for the second half with his seventh triple of the game, and freshman guard Erik Czumbel followed suit with a 6-0 team run.
“In the second half, we had one stretch where we really moved the ball,” Henson said. “It was one of the best stretches of possession we have had in weeks where different people were touching the ball and making plays.”
The ‘Runners increased their defensive presence in the backcourt, evidenced by the Blazers being unable to make a basket for a five-minute stretch. After baskets from Czumbel and juniors Luka Barisic and Knox Hellums, the ‘Runners trailed by one point, 57-56, with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game. Jackson gave the ‘Runners their first lead in the second half with a set of free throws, 58-57. Barisic led a 9-0 scoring streak for the ‘Runners as the score bounced in favor of each team with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
“At that point we felt really good about several guys, and that is a good feeling to have since it doesn’t always happen,” Henson said. “Jacob was very good through a great majority of the game, and we liked what he was giving us there. We felt like Luka made a nice little stretch there, and we wanted to pound the ball inside a couple times, and he made some nice passes out of there. Adrian Rodriguez gives us one of our better rebounders.”
The Blazers rallied and pulled ahead by four points, 68-64, before Wallace responded with a three from outside with less than 30 seconds left. The ‘Runners were unable to regain the lead before time ran out on the clock because of multiple fouls and unanswered baskets. The ‘Runners concluded the game with a five-point deficit, 74-69.
“We just came up short too many times, and we didn’t feel like we were far away in a lot of those ball games,” Henson said. “They were tough, disappointing and devastating in some of those cases, and I never felt like this group was far away from turning the corner, but I felt like we never quite did it. We would win one and lose one, put ourselves in position, then lose a heartbreaker, then bounce back.”
Wallace claimed 28 points with eight three-pointers against the Blazers, and Jackson and Germany reached double digits in scoring. The ‘Runners shot 38.8% from the field and were 10 of 27 from the three-point line. Frohnen secured 11 rebounds for the ‘Runners and now ranks 10th in the C-USA history in boards.
“They are a very resilient group, and I am proud of the way we have handled that,” Henson said. “Expectations were high. They had them, we had them and the fans had them. I hope there are some expectations with this group next year. It makes it harder in some ways, but we just have to make a couple more plays and win a few more ball games. This group continued to search defensively all year. The last few weeks we have struggled on the offensive end, but we never quite got where we wanted to be defensively to make the run that we needed to.”