Entering conference play this season, the UTPB men’s basketball team wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
This season marks the Falcons’ first in the Lone Star Conference, so, going into league play back in December, players and coaches couldn’t have known exactly where the Falcons would stack up as the season progressed — or even if they could even hang with some of the Lone Star’s best teams.
Now, nine games into the conference schedule, the Falcons have completed their first run-through against each of their foes in the 10-team league, and they have a better idea of just where they stand in the conference.
Now, the Falcons know they can compete in the Lone Star.
In fact, they know they’re capable of winning the whole thing.
UTPB went 6-3 in its first go-round in the conference, and sits in a tie for second place in the Lone Star standings, riding a four-game winning streak highlighted by a victory Saturday against the team atop those standings, Tarleton State.
With that victory, the Falcons proved themselves capable of beating any team in the conference, including the league-leaders, and they’re keeping that in mind as the second half of the conference schedule begins at 8:30 p.m. tonight with a game at Western New Mexico in Silver City, N.M.
“Now we’ve seen it. We know we fit in,” Falcons head coach Andy Newman said Tuesday, discussing his team’s first nine conference games.
“Now it’s time to see what we can do.”
If their play of late is any indication, the Falcons could contend for a conference championship.
UTPB put together complete performances in two victories last week, elevating its play on the defensive end of the floor and crashing the boards to a level matching that of the Falcons’ consistently high-powered offense.
The Falcons crushed fellow conference contender Texas A&M-Commerce last Thursday, winning 84-61, holding Commerce to a season-low in scoring while outrebounding the Lions 37-25. Commerce is one of the three other teams tied with UTPB for second place.
UTPB then topped Tarleton State 76-64, also holding the Texans to a season-low in scoring, while winning the rebounding battle 44-24. Tarleton State sits atop the conference standings with a 7-2 record.
Key in both big victories was the Falcons’ play on defense, and in rebounding — which both have become strengths in recent weeks.
That wasn’t the case for the Falcons earlier in the season, when the collection of talented, high-ability scorers that Newman had put together was relying heavily on its offense to make its way to a 10-2 start to the season and a 2-1 opening to conference play by the end of December.
The Falcons won most of their games during that stretch, and were one of the top scoring teams in Division II through several weeks in that time — but Newman, and his players alike, knew that if the Falcons continued to simply trade baskets with teams, they weren’t going to be able to compete for a Lone Star championship.
That kind of play ultimately bit the Falcons at the start of January, when UTPB fell twice on the road right out of the semester break, dropping to 2-3 in conference.
Since then, UTPB has seemingly put it all together.
The Falcons have averaged 42.5 rebounds per game through their current four-game winning streak, and they’ve held their opponents to a mere 68.3 points per game over that same stretch.
“We’re defending and rebounding the crap out of the ball and playing great,” Newman said. “Those two things are really carrying us.”
Newman said the turnaround in those facets has been a credit to his players. Newman harped on the team’s need to improve in those aspects early in the season, but he said his players took that suggestion and truly ran with it — and chose to get excited about improving rather than discouraged when adversity rose at times this season.
“I showed them the path and they really brought it,” Newman said Tuesday. “Even today in practice, you would think, ‘Hey, we’ve had some success, let’s slack off’ — and today was as good a practice as we’ve had.
“(We have leaders) who bring it every day and who are excited about the right things, excited about defending, excited about rebounding, excited about being good, every day, and not just on game days, but on a Tuesday, the 24th of January. They want to be good on that day. That’s been kind of the key to why this team is having the success, because these guys, they’re winners. They truly are everyday competitors.”
Meanwhile, as the Falcons have grown on defense and in rebounding, that high-powered scoring ability hasn’t fallen anywhere to the wayside. The Falcons are still 11th in Division II in scoring, averaging 89.9 points per game.
When the Falcons are playing well in all three of those phases, they’re tough to beat — as some of the conference’s best teams have learned in the last two weeks.
Now, going into the stretch of the season and a round of Lone Star rematches, the Falcons are just trying to keep that play up.
“‘Hold on. Don’t screw it up.’ It’s really that,” Newman said with a laugh. “We’re trying to just kind of bottle what we’ve got.
“We’re playing really good, so, we’re just really trying to stay out of injuries and keep the injury bug away from us and stay healthy and just keep that mindset going in the right direction.”
>> UTPB WOMEN READY FOR MORE: After having played each of its conference foes the first time, the UTPB women’s basketball team is ready to get into a second run-through and avenge a few tight losses the first time around.
The UTPB women sit 5-11 on the season and 2-8 in Lone Star play, but the Falcons are more familiar with their opposition now than they were at the start of conference play, and their schedule is back-loaded with six conference games at home.
“We hit the reset button,” UTPB women’s basketball head coach Jerome Willis said. “We’ve got 10 conference games. We set a goal of winning at least six of those and I think we do that we’ll be able to get in the conference tournament and then it’s a one-game playoff from there.
“That’s our goal and we’ve reset our focus and we’re fired up and ready to go.”
Through their first 10 conference games, the Falcons lost three by four points or less. With a few different bounces of the ball, the Falcons could be sitting at .500 now.
“We haven’t had many games where everybody played well,” Willis said. “Once we figure out how to get everybody going and everybody making some shots and defending and rebounding, I think we’ll be in good shape.
“Talent-wise, we have it. We’re just not executing late and finishing plays. And we’re playing teams with a lot of seniors and experience and leadership and that’s really what wins you those close games.
“We’ve got to learn from what happened to us in the first round and go out there and try pull some of those tight ones out.”
The Falcons have played just four home games this season. They have seven left on the schedule in the next month, with six coming as part of Lone Star action.
“We’ve had a brutal schedule, but being at home now we’re all focused on one goal and that’s making it to the tournament,” Willis said.
“I think we know we can do it. It’s just a matter of going out there and getting it done.”
>> TRAINER’S TABLE: Falcons men’s team forward Zeldric King missed UTPB’s first four games in January due to a nagging foot injury.
He returned to the floor last week on the road, scoring 12 points in 19 minutes against Commerce before adding six points in 14 minutes against Tarleton State.
Newman said King will miss tonight’s game with Western New Mexico, though, as the injury has been slow to heal. But King could be back on the floor again for Saturday’s game with Eastern New Mexico.