MEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: No. 25 UTPB earns ‘statement’ win over West Texas A&M to extend winning streak

Daeshon Francis remembers that awful feeling.

He remembers that long bus ride back from Amarillo in December — and he remembers how he felt, right along with the rest of his teammates, after a disappointing loss at West Texas A&M.

“Sickening,” he called it.

That was back during a 2-3 start to Lone Star Conference play for UTPB. Back before the Falcons had put it all together. Back before the turnaround. Back before the winning streak.

Things would be different Saturday, Francis and the Falcons vowed, when UTPB got its chance at payback in the rematch with West Texas A&M in Odessa.

And they proved it.

The No. 25 UTPB men’s basketball team led wire to wire, jumping out to a strong lead early before staving off a Buffs’ comeback bid late to down West Texas A&M 77-73 Saturday in the Falcon Dome, avenging that December defeat and picking up the Falcons’ eighth straight win in the process by knocking off a fellow Lone Star title contender.

Francis scored a team-high 25 points for the Falcons, while James McPherson added 16 and Johnnie Lacy finished with 12 in the win, which moved UTPB to 18-4 on the season and 9-3 in the Lone Star Conference — and which awarded the Falcons sole possession of second place in the league standings.

West Texas A&M (19-6, 7-5) could’ve tied UTPB for second in the standings with a win Saturday, but instead, the Falcons proved why they’re the hottest team in the conference, putting another notch into their league-best eight-game winning streak.

“We’re keeping the train rolling,” Francis said after Saturday’s victory.

“This was a payback game from the jump. It left that crazy taste in our mouth so we had to come ready to play today.”

The Falcons did just that, leaping out to an 8-0 lead to start the game, with a run capped by a Francis lay-in almost four minutes in.

West Texas A&M started to find the basket from there, with Buffs leading scorer David Chavlovich knocking down a pair of 3-pointers, though the Falcons’ Vinnie Abbondola knocked down two 3-balls down on the other end in response during the same sequence, before the Buffs’ Tommy Gove sank a free throw to make it a 5-point game at 14-9 with 11:47 left until the half.

But that’s when UTPB pulled away again. Matt Kelly scored with a jumper in the paint on the other end, then Sammy Allen poked away a steal from the Buffaloes that led to a Francis slam on the fastbreak.

A heartbeat later, McPherson came away with another steal that led to another rim-rocking Francis dunk, which put the Falcons in front by double digits for the first time at 20-9.

The Falcons ultimately took a 12-point lead into the halftime break at 39-27.

In the second half, pace of play slowed and West Texas A&M ultimately mounted a late comeback bid, cutting into what was an 11-point Falcons lead with three minutes to go and bringing the margin all the way down to 2 points in the final 10 seconds.

But Lacy knocked down clutch free throws in the waning moments to seal the win.

“It’s really a statement game,” Lacy said of the win.

And it didn’t come easy in the second half, when the Falcons had to grind their way through a slow-paced game between frequent whistles. Four Falcons fouled out of the game, as did three Buffaloes. The Falcons were charged with 33 fouls, which is the second-highest total of fouls charged to them in a single game this year. West Texas A&M was called for 29 fouls, which is the Buffs’ third-highest total of fouls this season.

Between all the stops, the flying Falcons, who like to push pace and maximize possessions when possible, had to find ways to score in their half-court offense.

Early in the second half, it was Francis who stepped up to that call. He scored 10 of the 18 points that the Falcons scored in the first 10 minutes of the second half. He dribbled to the right, rose amid contact from the contesting defender and bounced a jumper off the glass and in to put UTPB up 57-49 with 10:19 to go.

But the Buffs stuck within striking distance, spurred by Chavlovich, the Lone Star’s 2015-16 Player of the Year who became West Texas A&M’s all-time leading scorer during Saturday’s game.

Chavlovich scored 18 of his game-high 28 points in the second half — and he seemed poised to fuel the Buffs to a big run midway through the second half, especially when Francis starting cramping up and became less effective in scoring on the other end once the clock rolled under 10:00.

But that’s when Lacy stepped up for UTPB. On a pair of plays down the stretch, Falcons head coach Andy Newman spread the floor and allowed Lacy to attack Chavlovich one-on-one, and the UTPB senior delivered both times.

First, Lacy beat Chavlovich with a drive to the right and a stepback jumper along the baseline, which put UTPB up 64-52 with 6:22 left.

Chavlovich responded right back with a 3-pointer on the other end — but Lacy came back and did the same a few possessions later, when Newman called to spread the floor again. This time, Lacy put down a quick dribble and pulled up from behind the arch on the elbow, knocking down the shot over Chavlovich’s defense to put UTPB up 12 again at 67-55 with 4:28 left.

That sequence proved crucial for the Falcons. West Texas A&M outscored UTPB 18-10 from there, but that 12-point cushion that Lacy established helped the Falcons hang on.

“That was a signature game for Johnnie, especially against the former player of the year in the conference,” Newman said. “He’s a really good player. For Johnnie to be able to step up and play like he did, I was really happy for him.”

In the final 10 seconds, Lacy hit four of four from the free-throw line to ice the game.

“Me and Johnnie are the leaders of this team and when times get like that we’ve got to make plays, for others and for ourselves — whatever’s the best option,” Francis said. “I think Johnnie did a real great job today stepping up with free throws, especially when I started cramping up and stuff.

“That’s our senior. That’s the man. That’s the old head of the team,” he laughed, complimenting the Falcons’ lone senior starter.

Lacy hit those late free throws and the Falcons were able to hang on in the final moments even after players like Francis, Josh Morris and Sammy Allen fouled out.

“Down the stretch, we wanted to go inside but our guys just didn’t play smart. We just didn’t do a good job adjusting to the officials,” Newman added. “So we just kind of spread the floor out and we knew Johnnie had the advantage with his matchup and we just kind of wanted to exploit that as much as we could. And we did.”

West Texas A&M’s Eric Mosley hit a 3-point with 14 seconds left to cut a 6-point Falcons lead to 3 at 73-70. Then after a quick foul on Lacy and his two free throws, the Buffs’ Jordan Evans knocked down another 3-pointer with six seconds left to make it 75-73 and put the Falcons in trouble if Lacy would miss one on the other end — but he didn’t.

“It was a good game for us because we haven’t been in a lot of close ones,” Newman said. “Coming down the stretch, every game is going to be close. So that was a good experience for our guys, to be in a close game and still pull one out. So for that, I’m happy.

“I wish we would’ve handled the last seven minutes a little bit better. … We’ve got to do a better job closing games out. But that was really our first test in that. It was good to see us respond to it and do it.”