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Miners seek revenge in Battle of I-10

Andres Martinez
Junior guard Earvin Morris was one of five Miners that scored in double figures

UTEP does not have many true rivalries, but the one it has with the school up the road in Las Cruces over basketball is as real as it gets. The UTEP men’s basketball team hosts the New Mexico State Aggies at the Don Haskins Center on Saturday night, Nov. 22 in their second game of the 2014-15 season. This will be the first of two meetings between the schools this season the second taking place at the Pan-American Center in Las Cruces in December.

The Miners come into the game after handling Washington State University in its regular season opener on Friday in front of over 10,000 fans. The Cougars were the first of two Pac-12 teams UTEP is scheduled to face in its challenging out-of-conference schedule.

The Miners struggled offensively, but the defense that has become a staple of the program since head coach Tim Floyd took over, propelled them to their first win of the season. Led by sophomore forward Vince Hunter, who had 14 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, UTEP overwhelmed the visiting Cougars on defense and on the glass. UTEP forced 22 turnovers and held the Cougars to just 35 percent shooting, while winning the rebounding battle, 46-37.

Hunter’s performance earned him his first first C-USA Player of the Week award of the season.

“We defended pretty well,” Floyd said. “I thought we were as good as we’ve been since I’ve been here in terms of going to the offensive board.”

After a formidable challenge of Washington State, the Miners’ schedule only gets tougher. New Mexico State is the favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference and to make a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. Coached by Marvin Menzies, the Aggies began their season on the road against another NCAA tournament team. Wichita State, the no. 11 team in the nation was never  threatened by Menzies’ team and prevailed over the Aggies 71-54.

NMSU comes to town after sweeping the series with the Miners a year ago, and they will be led by the reigning WAC Player of the Year and this year’s WAC Preseason Player of the Year senior guard Daniel Mullings. He is accompanied by fellow seniors Tshilidzi Nephawe, center, and D.K. Eldridge, guard, who were chosen for the pre-season first and second teams, respectively.

“They are a terrific, terrific team,” Floyd said. “Same basic group that took San Diego State to overtime in the NCAA tournament.”

Mullings will likely be the focus of UTEP’s defense the way Washington State’s DaVonte Lacy, a member of the Pac-12 All-Star team. Senior guard Julian Washburn was on Lacy for long stretches of the game and will likely do the same with Mullings. Lacy was limited to just two shots in the first half. Throughout his career at UTEP, Washburn has distinguished himself as one of the best defenders in all of college basketball and understands the value of quality team defense.

“It’s a great sign that we’re playing great defense early. In order to be a great team ,you have to defend,” Washburn said.

The ability to rely on defense early in the season can be crucial as the team finds its rhythm offensively. Although struggling from the field, shooting just 35 percent, the Miners were still able to win by a double-digit margin because of defense. The problems on the offensive side is not something that worries Washburn too much.

“We have a lot of great scorers on this team, the shots are going to start falling eventually,” Washburn said.

This weekend’s matchup promises to be as close and exciting as the rivalry’s history. NMSU holds a one-game lead over the Miners, leading the series 101-100. There is no rivalry in UTEP athletics quite like this one and the recent Aggie success combined with the high Miner expectations make this game as intriguing as ever. Like in every true sport rivalry there will be more at stake than just a win for each team’s record when they step on to the court.

“We really need a win,” said senior center Cedric Lang. “As a team, we are really looking forward to this game. Hopefully we can get a bunch of people in the stands and get a win.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected].

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Miners seek revenge in Battle of I-10