Playing with Fire: Tigers defeat UT-RGV 95-84 to advance to the quarterfinals of the CI Tournament

by Pedro Romero Jr.

They were in this situation before.

Just a few days ago in New Orleans, the Tigers of Texas Southern had to stave off a furious comeback—which necessitated overtime—by the hosting Privateers to ensure their continual participation in the Postseason Tournament. Now, here they were grappling with the Vaqueros of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, the same team that pulled off a miraculous last-second defensive stop against SWAC colleague Grambling State to win their last game, in a fierce showdown.

Though it may be a tough pill for anyone to swallow, what with the many games squeezed into a few days during a tournament, these events are fitting for a team playing within the Ides of March, for their struggle of survival perfectly encapsulates the kind of energy needed to win above every other competitor.

And so, with University President Austin Lane and Vice President of Athletics Kevin Granger in attendance, the Tigers defeated the Vaqueros in their backyard 95-84 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Postseason Tournament.

Jeremy Combs, the Tigers’ leading man, put up his thirteenth double-double of the season by making 27 points and 17 rebounds. His dazzling play caught the attention of onlookers, but none was more important than team head coach Johnny Jones.

“Jeremy Combs has been steady for us all season long,” the eighteen-year coaching veteran said. “His performance was outstanding but it wasn’t surprising because that’s what he’s been able to do all year long for this basketball team.”

In addition to Combs, four other Tiger players scored at least 10 points each for the game. Tyrik Armstrong made 16 points while also generating seven assists, three rebounds, four steals, and one blocked shot. John Jones scored 12 points in the win. Devocio Butler banked in 11 points whereas Jalyn Patterson reached the minimum threshold of 10.

“The guys did a great job again sharing the basketball tonight,” coach Jones said in relation to the last game against New Orleans. “To have five guys in double figures show that our guys trust each other. Having scorers in every position allows us to move the ball freely and hit the open guy.”

For the Vaqueros, Tyson Smith led the team with his 18 points, two rebounds, and two assists. Terry Winn III chipped in too with 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Jordan Jackson rounds out the team with 15 points, two rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot, and two steals.

Texas Southern’s only lead in the first half was in its opening possession where a layup by Butler made it a 2-0 score in favor of the visiting team. At one point, the Vaqueros’ largest lead over the Tigers was nine points which happened at the nineteenth minute mark of the half when the score was 41-32.

By halftime, the Tigers made 11 of their 28 shots which amounted to 39 percent across the field. The home team, meanwhile, shot for nearly 50 percent thanks to their 17 made shots from a possible 35.

Regardless, if the Tigers hoped to get back in this game, they needed to get their shooting touch back, or else they’ll be packing their bags as an eliminated side by the game’s end.

That is why in the second half, the Tigers roared out of the dressing room to shoot over 72 percent from the field by making 24 out of 33 shots. Any semblance of a slump was eradicated within minutes thanks to a 3-pointer on the corner by Patterson at the 18:34 mark, which cut the Vaqueros’ lead down to one point for a 43-42 score.

Coach Jones explained the reason for the Tigers’ sudden change in fortune for the second half.

“Execution was the key to shooting at such a high rate. Especially in the second half, we moved the basketball, played selfless and made the extra pass to find an open teammate. The guys did a great job of finishing in the paint and that opened up the perimeter down the stretch.”

The momentum had clearly shifted, and the Tigers knew it. Sensing this, the Tigers hounded the Vaqueros with double-team pressure on their side of the court to force turnovers and hopefully continue their attack. That action ended up paying off big time when, during the fifteenth minute mark, a slew of turnovers allowed the Tigers to go on a 14-2 run, thus giving them an 82-74 lead.

With the advantage in hand, the Tigers did not relinquish it again to the Vaqueros, thereby sealing the game for good.

The Vaqueros tried to salvage it though, but as they tried to commit reach-in fouls with less than a minute to go, they failed to cover Combs, who then made a couple of easy layups near the rim to finally end the game.

“These guys have been able to take advantage of the chance opportunities that were presented to them on the floor,” coach Jones said after the game. “To win again in a hostile environment tonight against another great team with contributions from every player makes me proud to be their coach.”

The Tigers’ next opponent in the CIT is Louisiana-Monroe, who have been given the opportunity to host the game on Thursday, March 25 at 7pm.