Men’s basketball streaking, in second place of Conference USA

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Michaela Roman

Senior guard Julian Washburn has scored double figures in the past two games.

Luis Gonzalez, Sports Editor

The UTEP men’s basketball team has won six-straight games and sits alone in second place in Conference USA. After two wins at home, first against Charlotte and then against Old Dominion, the Miners’ 10-3 conference record trails only Louisiana Tech’s 10 wins and two losses. UTEP’s longest conference home stretch continues when they host the University of Texas at San Antonio on Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Don Haskins Center.

“We had expectations of this team and we would have expected that,” said Miner head coach Tim Floyd about the team’s current place in the standings. “We got a long way to go, we got five really, really difficult games to go.”

UTEP came in to this past weekend’s games on a four-game winning streak set to face one of the worst teams in the league, record-wise.

The Charlotte 49ers came to El Paso with an unthreatening 3-7 conference record, but it was a team who had narrowly lost at Old Dominion, at Middle Tennessee and took UAB to overtime.

“I think everybody should see that team, which is now 3-8 (in the conference), is very, very, talented and once they figure it out, it’s going to be a team that everybody is going to have to reckon with in the conference tournament,” Floyd said. “The kind of team that can just storm through it and win four games.”

After an uncharacteristic fast start that saw UTEP get out to a 10-2 lead, the Miners had to battle throughout the rest of the game to ward off a very resilient Charlotte squad.

Charlotte shot the ball well in the first period, but the Miners’ defense just did not allow the 49ers to shoot much. The visitors made half of the shots they took during the first 20 minutes of play, but they also turned it over 14 times. UTEP took advantage of the forced turnovers, scoring 15 points off of them.

A 34-27 lead at the break was cut down to as little as three with about a minute left in the game, and those unthreatening 49ers had all of a sudden put UTEP’s victory in danger. The Miners allowed Charlotte to get close because of their struggles when it came to rebounding the ball. Charlotte outrebounded UTEP 39-26, including 12 on the offensive glass in the second half.

UTEP went 9-10 from the free-throw line to finish the game and secure the 73-68 win.

“All in all, it’s a good win,” Floyd said.

The Miners followed the hard-fought victory with what could arguably be their biggest victory of the season.

The once-nationally ranked Old Dominion Monarchs came into the Don Haskins Center and left having scored less than 50 points for only the second time this year. Floyd’s men played some of the best defense they have played all year and limited the Monarchs to a woeful 26.9 percent shooting in the first half and 30.8 percent for the game.

Senior guard Julian Washburn had the challenge of guarding one of the top offensive players in Conference USA in Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman. Averaging 16 points a game, Washburn limited Freeman to just six points on nine attempts from the field.

“I think that’s probably the best defense we’ve played all year,” said senior guard C.J. Cooper. “Julian (Washburn) shut down their main player and I think he affected all of us.”

The game ended fittingly with UTEP forcing a turnover that resulted in Washburn slamming on the other end to seal the 62-47 Miner win.

The Miners’ six-game winning streak is the longest active streak in the conference and is one win shy of tying the longest of the season. Western Kentucky, who has lost three of their last five games, started the conference season with seven-straight victories.

The second-place Miners now turn their attention to the UTSA Roadrunners. Both teams will have plenty of time to prepare since they will be off on Thursday night while the rest of the conference remains active.

The Roadrunners are coming off an eight-point loss to Charlotte this past Saturday in San Antonio, but are one of the better road teams in Conference USA. UTSA will be looking to avenge its loss to UTEP earlier this season, when the Miners traveled to San Antonio and came away with a 73-55 victory.

“I think they’ve won as many road games as we have,” Floyd said. “They’ve been outstanding on the road and that will be difficult here.”

UTSA has actually won four games on the road, compared to UTEP’s five, but that is still good enough to put them among the top three in the conference when it comes to playing away from home.

UTSA’s 7-6 conference record, 13-11 overall, is good enough for sixth place in the conference and they still face the possibility of finishing among the top four teams, which means they will receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

The Roadrunners are among the best offenses in the league, averaging 72 points per game, just a tad better than the 69.7 UTEP is averaging. When it comes to defense though, the gap is a little wider. UTEP is third in Conference USA in scoring defense, allowing 62.9 points per game. UTSA, on the other hand, sits in the bottom three, allowing opponents to score just over 70 points per contest.

After having to deal with Old Dominion’s Freeman, the task will not get any easier for UTEP as UTSA brings to town another explosive scorer in senior forward Jeromie Hill. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Australian was just named the co-player of the week in Conference USA, and is averaging 16.8 points per game—third best in Conference USA. Hill is also among the best rebounders in the league, averaging 7.8 boards per game. UTEP’s Vince Hunter still leads the league in that category with an average of 9.6.

Hill will not come to El Paso alone. Three other Roadrunners are averaging points in double figures and are among the top 25 scorers in the league. Senior guard Keon Lewis is averaging 15.1 points, junior guard Ryan Bowie is averaging 12.6 and the senior center Kaj-Bjorn Sherman is averaging 11.8. The 7-foot Sherman is also averaging seven rebounds per game, sixth best in Conference USA.

UTEP and UTSA have met seven times over the years. The Miners lead the series 6-1, with their most recent victory coming earlier this season in mid-January. The lone victory the Roadrunners have against UTEP came in 2011. On that occasion, UTSA came into the Don Haskins and beat the Miners 73-64 in what was Floyd’s first year in charge of the program. That UTEP team would go on to lose to Memphis in the championship game of the conference tournament and to New Mexico in the first round of the NIT.

Defense has been the staple of Tim Floyd’s teams ever since he came back to El Paso and the Miners will look to continue to rely on that facet of the game as they reach the final stages of the regular season. With the possibility of a regular season conference championship still very much real, UTEP is focused on protecting their home court every time they take the floor.

“I think what we are bringing to our home court is a team that can really, really guard,” Floyd said. “If we can continue to do that these next three games then we have a chance to win.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected]