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Miners go through nightmare on the road

Michaela Román
Head coach Tim Floyd questions a call with the referee.

UTEP was in sole possession of second place in Conference USA and within striking distance of leader Louisiana Tech.

Two road losses later and the Miners have lost all possibility of finishing as the top team in the conference and are in a three-way tie for fourth place, putting a first-round bye in the conference tournament very much in danger.

UTEP will finish the regular season at home against two Texas schools–North Texas and Rice—on Thursday, March 5, and Saturday, March 7, respectively.

“We’re trying to get into this top four, but we were battling to win a league title a couple of days ago,” said assistant coach Bob Cantu. “Now we just want to get into the top four and this is just really unacceptable. Just hoping that it really causes us to refocus going into the next two weeks.”

The nightmare weekend began in Ruston, La. The Miners visited Louisiana Tech hoping to exact some revenge on the team that beat them in El Paso early in the season, and grab the top spot in the conference.

They didn’t.

Tim Floyd’s team, focused on showing they were a different team than that one the Bulldogs beat in early January, put in a performance that was all too similar to exactly what they wanted to avoid.

“I thought our poise was nowhere near where it needed to be,” Floyd said. “As a result, we got beaten by a better team. They just thoroughly whipped us.”   

Like what happened when the teams met in El Paso, the Miners just could not get a basket to fall on the floor of the Reed Green Coliseum. The Bulldogs opened the game with a 10-2 run, and by the time UTEP had double digits on the scoreboard, they were down by double digits, 23-10, with eight minutes to go in the first half.

Louisiana Tech made eight 3-pointers during the first 20 minutes, while UTEP went 0-7 from beyond the arc.

“Their pressure seemed to really bother us,” Floyd said.  “We had an inability to guard the 3-point line, which started with a lack of ability to get back on defense.”

The second half was not much better. The Bulldogs pushed their lead to 18 early in the second half and the Miners never really got back in it. The tough outing was topped off by Floyd’s ejection with 10 minutes left in the game.

The turnaround and opportunity at redemption were quick for UTEP as they visited Southern Mississippi. There is only one team in Conference USA with a worse record than the Golden Eagles, and for the first 20 minutes of play it showed.

The Miners allowed Southern Miss to score just 20 points on 26.9 percent shooting in the first half, and behind junior guard Earvin Morris’ 16 points, UTEP had a commanding 15 point lead at the half.

Then it all went wrong.

UTEP turned the ball over 11 times after the break and gave up twice as many points as they did in the first half. The Golden Eagles completed the stunning comeback to beat the Miners 60-63.

“You have to value the basketball every possession and I thought we didn’t do that,” Cantu said.

Morris added 10 more points in the second half, giving him a new career-high of 26, but no other Miner was able to break the double-digit threshold.

The steady and reliable senior guard C.J. Cooper had five turnovers. Sophomore forward Vince Hunter added five giveaways himself and senior center Cedric Lang fouled out of the game for the fourth straight time.

Thanks to the disastrous weekend away from home, the Miners now find themselves in a tie with Western Kentucky and Old Dominion—all with a record of 11-5—for the final two top spots in the conference.

UTEP faces North Texas and Rice to finish off the season, and both teams are fighting for better seeding in the conference’s post-season tournament.

North Texas will be at the Don Haskins Center first on Thursday, March 5. The Mean Green is coming off a loss at home to Old Dominion that stopped a five-game winning streak. During the winning streak, North Texas had wins over UAB, currently second in conference, and Middle Tennessee.

The Mean Green, 14-14, 8-8 in conference,  are led by senior guard Jordan Williams, who averages 15.4 points per game. Williams is the only player at North Texas averaging points in double digits.

The Mean Green will be at a disadvantage when it comes to size, with no player listed over 6-foot-8-inches. On paper, UTEP should dominate inside, but that was the case against Louisiana Tech, the worst rebounding team in the conference, and the Bulldogs outrebounded the Miners 44-34.

North Texas brings to town two players who are the among the top 15 rebounders in the league—freshman Jeremy Combs averages 6.5 rebounds a game and senior Colin Voss averages an even 6.

Rice comes to town after North Texas. The Owls will be in San Antonio to play UTSA on Thursday before arriving in El Paso and they have lost two straight. They lost to Old Dominion and Charlotte this past weekend at home.

Rice is tied with UTSA and Marshall with a conference record of 7-9 and just a game ahead of Charlotte and FIU, who sit at 8-10. These last couple of games will play a big part in deciding the seeding and matchups for the conference tournament that will take place in Birmingham, Ala., in just a couple of weeks.

Rice will not finish with a winning record this regular season, but it does boast important wins against top teams in the league like UAB, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.

The Owls’ leading scorer is senior forward Seth Gearhart. The 6-foot-7-inch Oregon native is the 10th best scorer in the league averaging 15.4 points a game. He averages 5.3 rebounds per game and is second in that category to sophomore center Andrew Drone, who barely cracks the top 25 in conference with his 5.6 average.

It can’t be easy to recover from a weekend like UTEP men’s basketball just experienced, when the negative seems to erase all the positives this team has experienced before.

“I felt we were playing great basketball, had won seven in a row,” Cantu said. “As a coach, we have to keep them up, we got to keep them moving and we have to keep them positive.”

This final weekend of the regular season can be crucial in what the Miners do this March, now that nothing short of a conference tournament championship will be enough to land a spot among the 68 teams that play for a national championship.

This weekend’s games provide the opportunity to rebound from the worst three days of a long season and gather some momentum for the trip to Birmingham. Despite their records and place in the standings, beating Rice and North Texas is important–very important.

“This is something that I really hope the guys understand. If we want to finish in the top four, we gotta win these two home games…against two very good opponents that are playing really good basketball,” Cantu said. “You gotta win these, you gotta get in and only have three games to play in the tournament.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Michaela Román, Editor-in-Chief
Michaela is a Senior Digital Media Production major at The University of Texas at El Paso. As the Editor-in-Chief, and former Photo Editor of The Prospector, she has learned to stay organized, manage a staff of writers and photographers, meet deadlines, cover events and network with others. She also has freelance experience and a personal photography business. Michaela aspires to work as an editor for a large media outlet and one day go to graduate school to teach photojournalism.
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Miners go through nightmare on the road