Coach Denny Downing has been counting on his seniors these days, and they are starting to come through in the clutch. The Lady Broncs began the Great West Conference season Thursday with a 62-54 home triumph against New Jersey Tech, to win for the third game in a row. They followed that up with a 10-point win over Chicago State Saturday, bringing their record to 6-12.

Local hero Marah Guzman and fellow senior Aleeya Grigsby carried the banner high in the second half Thursday when UTPA took control, or rather retook it. Those two combined for 12 of the team’s first 15 of the half to help build a 43-34 lead at the 11-minute mark. After having seen a 10-point first-half advantage shrink to just two at the half, Downing was glad to see his vets pick it up.

“We had too many turnovers in the first half, we just have to start valuing the basketball more,” the first-year leader said. “But I have to hand it to the seniors, they have accepted me and adopted my vision for the team, and they have been giving a great effort. That’s all a coach can ask for.”

Grigsby came in averaging 8.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. Against Tech she exploded for 16 points and took up the slack for Rose Esther Jean, who was in foul trouble early and shot just 1 for 5 overall. Also having whistle woes was leading scorer Bianca Torre, who picked up two quick ones and sat out the last seven minutes of the first. The Harlingen South ex had scored six fast points and assisted on another two to account for eight of UTPA’s first 10 markers of the night. She returned to action in the second half and ended up with 13 points.

When Torre was down, Guzman came up big with three hoops in the second half to stave off the Lady Highlander comeback. After having five assists but also five turnovers in the first 20 minutes, the EHS ex (playing a career-high 36 minutes) said she came out determined to get it right. She finished with 10 points, four steals, and six feeds.

“I had to,” remarked the Lady Bobcat ex, whose sister Miranda and parents watched from the stands. “Especially after making all those mistakes in the first.”

Also contributing great things for the suddenly surging unit was 6-foot-2 Icelander Maria Erlingsdottir, who like Grigsby had 16 points, 13 in the first half when Pan Am made 6 of 12 threes to take the lead. She nailed several money longballs with the clock running down, after having connected on 31 percent of her threes coming into the night.

“She often has to guard a tall player and it sometimes tires her out,” Downing commented. “But tonight she was hitting her shots well.”

The Lady Broncs were outboarded by 19, which is no surprise as for the season now they have a minus-7 differential there. They made up for it with solid defense against a poor-shooting visitor that canned just 26.5 percent from the floor. With Guzman and Torre bothering the guards with quick hands and the Grigsby/Jean combo skying to the glass, Tech had little room to work.

“We’re going to ride that horse like we’ve been doing,” said Downing of his inside pair. “They have been playing great, really giving us 100 percent. And we need all the help we can get inside.”

In all, it was a pleasing conference debut for Downing, who came from Texas A&M-Commerce to take over for the departed DeAnn Craft this year. He noted that the Lady Broncs did not sub until the 10-minute mark of the first half.

“I guess coming from a DII school I have to get used to having more kids available to play,” he laughed. “But the girls we had out there, those seniors, they worked hard and they are proud to be out there. We’ve played a lot of tough games this year already and it should get us ready for conference play. Not many teams we are going to go against can say they’ve played three Big 12 schools.”

NOTES: UTPA welcomed Chicago State to town Saturday and scored its fourth win in a row, 70-60 over the Lady Cougars. The Lady Broncs spotted the foe an 11-0 lead before roaring back behind 19 points and nine assists from Torre. Jean collected a double-double with 16 points and 11 boards, while EHS’s Guzman had another good night, with 13 points. The women now anticipate a home game Jan. 28 against North Dakota State.

MEN BREAK LONG LOSING STREAK

    After a miserable start, the Broncs have hit conference play with a vengeance, winning two in a row at the Field House to start Great West action.

Saturday it was a 63-42 win against Chicago State, following up a 13-point victory two days before over New Jersey Tech. Matt Mierzycki had 16 points Saturday with Jared Maree throwing in 12 with six boards.

The wins made the Broncs 3-16 but 2-0 in conference.

In the Thursday triumph, the Broncs trailed by one at the half before a three from Nick Weiermiller sent them ahead early on. Aaron Urbanus, a high-energy freshman from Austin Bowie, scored all 13 of his points after the break to once again give the team a lift.

“He’s is one of those guys who has flat forced us into playing him, he’s worked so hard and has been so effective,” said Marks of the skinny 6-footer, who was not in the rotation at season’s start. “The guy hustles, makes things happen, and really gives us a spark when he’s on the floor.”

Also getting 13 against New Jersey Tech in the 66-53 win was Mierzycki, a 6-6 junior from Illinois who like Urbanus was not in the battle plan when the year started. But the transfer from Parkland CC has emerged in the past month, giving the unit quality minutes at forward; he’s strong and can stick the mid-range jumper.

Closing out the star set for Thursday’s win, which broke a seven-week drought for the club, was dependable senior Luis Valera, who contributed 10 points and eight boards. Pan Am got to the line 31 times Thursday, converting 24. The Broncs came in averaging just 19 free-throw tries a game with a 60-percent success mark; being aggressive enough to get 31 tries and making 77 percent helped forge the W.

UTPA’s last win had been way back on Nov. 27 against Chattanooga at the SPI Classic, and now Marks thinks his team is starting to come around.

“We played a lot of tough teams and took our lumps,” he admitted. “But I see them starting to get there, the learning curve is flattening out and we understand what it takes. I expect us to keep this improvement going and be a factor in the conference this year.”

NOTES: The Broncs take on TCU in Fort Worth Jan. 20 before three home games in six days, starting Jan. 25 versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

New university president Robert Nelsen was on hand Saturday for the doubleheader; the spring semester at UTPA was set to start Tuesday.