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Miners play for first place at Louisiana Tech

Andres Martinez
Senior guard Julian Washburn is now the seventh best scorer in UTEP basketball history.

The UTEP men’s basketball team is now just half a game out of first place in Conference USA after a hard-fought win over UTSA on Saturday.

The Miners clawed their way out of an early hole against the Roadrunners on their way to their seventh-straight win by a final of 69-62.

The stage is now set for a showdown with conference leader Louisiana Tech in a matchup that will most likely decide the regular season conference champion.

UTEP will be in Ruston, La. to face the Bulldogs on Thursday, Feb. 26, before heading to Mississippi to face Southern Miss on Saturday, which will be the Miners’ final two regular season road games of the year.

“Its something we’ve really been looking forward to,” said senior guard C.J. Cooper about the matchup with La Tech. “Looking at the situation, it makes it even more motivating for us to go out there and get a win on the road.”

This past Saturday, a game that was big for the Miners’ hopes of staying in the race for the number one spot in Conference USA got even bigger when La Tech lost on the road to Old Dominion earlier in the day. The Bulldogs now had three losses in conference, the same as the Miners, and a UTEP win brought coach Tim Floyd’s team into a virtual tie for first place.

“It was a great game,” said UTEP senior guard Julian Washburn. “They played us very physical, but I’m glad we were able to match their toughness and pull out this win.”

The Miners got off to their usual slow start against a talented UTSA team that scored 24 points within the first eight minutes of play and  led UTEP by double digits. Every shot seemed to be falling for the Roadrunners and none for the Miners, but that’s when the Miner defense showed up.

After those eight minutes, in which the visiting squad shot over 66 percent, the Roadrunners went eight minutes without a single basket. Sparked by their defense, the Miner offense got going and with five minutes to go in the half, the score was tied at 24.

“I just think we played exceedingly hard during that stretch,” Floyd said. “We really did, and I thought our crowd really helped us in that comeback.”

With the score tied at 30 to start the second half, the Miners got the lead for just the second time in game by scoring five quick, unanswered points. UTSA never really went away, but never led again to the delight of the more than 10,000 fans in attendance.

Junior guard Earvin Morris led all scorers with 18 points. Morris was not alone on offense, three other Miners scored in double figures. Cooper had 16 and sophomore forward Vince Hunter and Washburn both had 10.

In the victory, a couple of milestones were reached by two key pieces of this Miner team. It was Floyd’s 100th victory as the head coach at UTEP and Washburn moved into seventh place among the top scorers in school history.

“I never thought that I’d be top 10 in scoring,” Washburn said. “I got a lot more basketball to go and hopefully I can move up the list.”

After three games at home, UTEP’s longest conference home stretch, the Miners head to the road as games seem to get more important as they go.

Louisiana Tech was tabbed to finish first in conference before the season started with UTEP following in second.

The Bulldogs came into the Don Haskins Center in early January and gave the Miners their only home conference loss by a final score of 58-45.

The 45 points are the lowest UTEP has scored on any night this season and the only time they scored under 50. The Miners scored 12 points in the second half.

“We were really slow offensively, we didn’t really move the ball,” Morris said. “We really weren’t aggressive.”

Since then, UTEP has gone 9-2 and Tech 10-3, with both the Bulldogs and the Miners appearing among the top in almost every statistical category. UTEP has the best road record in conference and Southern Miss has yet to lose this year on their home floor.

UTEP is fifth in scoring offense, while the Bulldogs are second. UTEP is third in scoring defense and Louisiana Tech is fifth.

The Bulldogs are led offensively by junior Alex Hamilton, who averages close to 16 points per game. Sophomore Eric McCree and senior Raheem Appleby are also among the top 25 scorers in the league, averaging 11.6 and 15.5 points, respectively. Appleby scored 22 points the last time the two teams met.

If Louisiana Tech has a weakness it is on the glass. The Bulldogs are among the worst in Conference USA when it comes to rebounding both offensively and defensively. They are among the bottom four in both categories and their rebounding margin is dead last. Tech gets outrebounded on average by almost five rebounds a game.

The performances of Hunter, who leads the league in rebounding, senior center Cedric Lang and the possible return of 7-foot center Matt Willms could be one of the keys to victory for UTEP.

“It was just a bad game mentally for all of us,”  Willms said. “Now it’s just us focusing on ourselves and show them who we really are.”

After Thursday, the Miners will visit one of the worst teams in the league in Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles have just two wins in conference this season—only Florida Atlantic has less. UTEP also played Southern Miss in early January, routing former Miner coach Doc Sadler’s squad 74-40 at the Don Haskins Center.

The one threat Sadler’s team has is in senior guard Chip Armelin. The Minnesota native averages 15.8 points per game, which makes him the sixth-best scorer in Conference USA.

UTEP has won five conference games on the road, helping to set up as big a game as you can have at this point of the season. The formula for winning on the road has been there all season long and the confidence in the ability to do it a couple more times might be all the Miners need to come back to El Paso ahead in the title race.

“We’ve had a real good road mentality,” Floyd said. “Every game, you better be jacked up, you better not be afraid, you better not be scared and I don’t think our guys will be.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected].

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Miners play for first place at Louisiana Tech