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WAC Notes: The night chaos reigned as favorites fell

But the two-bid WAC is alive.

NCAA Basketball: UMKC at Wichita State Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a story in the WAC that probably isn’t getting the luster it deserves.

Consider what UT Rio Grande Valley, the artist formerly known as Texas Pan American, has been over the past 20 years. Across seven head coaches, the program has won 13 or more games just five times, finishing with a winning record in just two of those seasons.

If you’re more analytically-inclined, the program has been a sub-300 KenPom dweller over the past 10 seasons. The high water mark was finishing at 244th during an 18-13 campaign as an independent in 2007-08.

That rough history looks like it’s getting wiped away this season as Lew Hill has UTRGV on an upward trajectory. The Vaqueros picked up their biggest win in Hill’s two-year tenure when they knocked off Grand Canyon Thursday night in Edinburg. Its magnitude, as much as that word can be used for an early February, can’t be understated.

The Lopes have plodded along in a solid, but uninspiring, season, winning the games they should but losing every game that presents a real but winnable challenge (Illinois, Utah Valley, St. John’s). UTRGV (13-12, 4-4), on the other hand, picked up some nice non-conference wins (UC Irvine, North Texas), but had not beaten any league team in the upper half of the standings.

That all changed in the Vaqueros’ two-point win. The Lopes’ vaunted defense had its least efficient outing in conference play, which includes games against New Mexico State and UVU, handing them a loss to a team more than 100 spots below them. And UTRGV was able to do what it could not in tight games against UVU and Seattle: pick up a home win against a team in the upper half of the league standings.

Vaqueros’ senior guard Nick Dixon was great yet again, scoring 22 points (9-10 FT) despite a rough night from the field against GCU’s length. In the bigger picture, replacing Dixon’s all-league production will be a challenge, but Hill also has youth in important roles. Sophomore Xavier McDaniel Jr. was crucial throughout the night, responding to a 15-0 GCU run with a scoring burst of his own early in the second half.

He then had the shot of the night, drilling a three with just over a minute left to give UTRGV a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. That shot helped pull the Vaqueros to 4-4 in WAC play, and with winnable games coming up against CSU Bakersfield, Seattle, UMKC and Chicago State, it gives the program a chance to finish with a winning record both in league play, and overall.

It was a happy locker room again in Kansas City

It’s been a rough three weeks for the Roos.

Xavier Bishop downed CSUB with a game-winning three on Jan. 18, but since then it’s been nothing but losing. UMKC came into Thursday’s game against Seattle on a five-game losing streak that included the understandable (NMSU) and the not-so-understandable (Div. II William Jewell).

But the Roos snapped that streak by knocking off Seattle, which had won five of its last six games, including a big home win over UVU last Saturday. It was a satisfying night for Kareem Richardson.

“It’s proof to ourselves that we can compete and play with the upper echelon of the league. It’s been awhile,” Richardson said. “It’s more of a morale booster going through the season we’ve been going through with the injuries. It was really cool to see the guys excited in the locker room again.”

UMKC got a career night from sophomore forward Jordan Giles, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds, at times as the lone big man in Roos’ four-guard lineup. The Roos’ ball pressure, whether in zone or man-to-man, forced three-point happy Seattle into difficult shots within the arc throughout the night.

Bishop, whose breakout season continued with an 18-point, zero turnover outing, sounded just like his coach talking about the win.

“We need a game that can be a turning point for us,” he said. “Playing our defense, playing our style, getting up and down. We needed this game to see that we could really play. It was definitely a confidence booster.”

Taking care of business

The quest for a two-bid WAC was not derailed in Bakersfield last night, as NMSU suffocated CSUB in a 69-43 win. The Aggies held a ‘Runners team playing without Shon Briggs to a miserable night from distance (2-21 3FG), and limited the explosive tandem of Jarkel Joiner and Damiyne Durham to a combined 14 points on five-for-21 shooting.

That eliminated any possibility for a shocking upset, and a dominant night on the boards — including 20 rebounds by Jemerrio Jones — finished the deal.

In Chicago, UVU bounced back from its loss at Seattle by bludgeoning the Cougars by 40 points.

CSU has had issues defending the three-point line this season, and that was a major problem Thursday, as the Wolverines threw in 12 shots from distance. This was a vast improvement over a cold-shooting night (3-13 3FG) against the Redhawks. By going four-for-seven from deep, Conner Toolson upped his three-point average to 51.3 percent in league play.

The biggest news was that Akolda Manyang returned from his mysterious absence against Seattle, and if he stays on the court, and the Wolverines keep teams spaced from deep, UVU remains as dangerous as ever.