Miners squeak into post season, make NIT

UTEP+men%E2%80%99s+basketball+will+play+at+Murray+State+at+7+p.m.+on+Tuesday+in+the+opening+round+of+the+NIT.+The+game+will+be+on+ESPN2.

Michaela Roman

UTEP men’s basketball will play at Murray State at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the opening round of the NIT. The game will be on ESPN2.

Luis Gonzalez, Sports Editor

The UTEP men’s basketball season is not over, not yet. After a disappointing semifinal loss at the Conference USA Tournament at the hands of Middle Tennessee, the Miners will play in the National Invitational Tournament. UTEP will travel to Murray, Ky., where they will face Murray State on Tuesday night for the first round of the NIT.

“It’s a nice tribute to our players and the fact they did some good things this year,” UTEP head coach Tim Floyd said. “We’re glad that we have an opportunity to watch our seniors play another game.”

The Miners went into the conference tournament in search of a berth in the NCAA Tournament, which will crown the national champion later this month. In order to be among the 68 teams that participate in the big dance, UTEP had but one choice, win it all in Alabama.

A good start to the conference tournament with a comfortable win over Florida International fueled the hope of UTEP’s return to the NCAA Tournament.

The Miners shot lights out against the Golden Panthers en route to an 83-71 victory.

In the semifinals of the tournament, UTEP faced a Middle Tennessee team that was coming off a surprising upset win over one of the favorites in Old Dominion. Floyd’s squad got off to a fast start and a 21-11 lead, and then all the shots that were falling the previous morning didn’t on Friday afternoon.

“We ran into a scrappy group, who had beaten Old Dominion and was playing with a lot of confidence,” Floyd said Saturday. “They had a kid get hot who really hadn’t been a factor this season. I’m sure we would like to have some things back.”

Middle Tennessee’s D.J. Jones scored 15 of his 17 points during the final 10 minutes of the contest and propelled the Blue Raiders to a second-consecutive upset win, 53-50. The 5-foot-10 freshman guard had barely been a factor for Middle Tennessee all season long and averaged less than five points per game coming into the semifinal clash with the Miners.

Jones’ offensive explosion was unexpected to say the least, but the fact that UTEP just could not find the basket did not help the Miner cause either. After scoring 21 and getting out to a double-digit lead within the first 10 minutes of play, UTEP scored just four more points in the final 10 of the first half and somehow still led 25-20.

Still with the lead, the Miners shot just 39.1 percent from the field, including 20 percent from beyond the arc. Seniors Julian Washburn and Cedric Land were the only players to score in double figures—12 and 14, respectively. It was just the second time all season in which UTEP scored 50 or less points in a game.

“Give Middle Tennessee credit,” Floyd said. “They did a very nice job, I thought, of playing within themselves when they were down for most of the game. Their zone was effective in terms of shortening the game offensively. It forced us to have to work a little harder.”

The semifinal defeat crushed the Miner’s NCAA Tournament dreams and a Louisiana Tech loss later in the day put UTEP’s participation in any kind of post-season tournament in grave danger.

Fortunately for UTEP, the Miners were among the 32 teams announced Sunday night, who were invited and will participate in college basketball’s second best post-season tournament.

Although there is no national championship at stake, the 78-year-old tournament provides an opportunity for younger players to get experience. The departing seniors get to prolong their career and the schools get exposure.

The first three rounds of the tournament will be hosted by the team with the higher seed. The semifinals and championship game will take place at Madison Square Garden.

The most recent memory of UTEP’s participation in the NIT was a lackluster 57-69 loss at New Mexico.

“We were coming off a very disappointing loss, one in which we led by 12 with six minutes to go against Memphis [in the Conference USA championship game],” Floyd said. “I think our guys were really deflated at that point.”

The Miners have participated in the NIT a total of 10 times. Their last win came in 2006 at home, but have not won a game in this tournament on the road since 1980. UTEP won its first NIT road game at Wichita State, and has lost seven straight since then.

Breaking this negative road streak will not be an easy task against a Murray State team that has 27 wins this season to only five losses. The Racers, who many predicted would be playing in the NCAA Tournament, dominated the Ohio Valley Conference, winning all 16 games they played this year before losing in the conference championship game to Belmont, 88-87. The loss ended a 25-game winning streak for Murray State.

At home at the 8,602-seat CFSB Center, the Racers went an impressive 14-1, losing only to Houston in their second game of the season.

“We haven’t gotten to look at Murray State a great deal yet,” Floyd said. “I’m aware they won 25 straight games and that tells me they probably should be in the NCAA Tournament.”

The Racers are impressive on paper. They are inside the top-25 teams in the nation when it comes to scoring, winning percentage and field goal percentage. Murray State averages 79.1 points per game–10th in the nation– while shooting 48.4 percent from the field–16th in the nation.

They are led by sophomore guard Cameron Payne, who ranks 10th in the nation in scoring with an average of 20.3 points per game. Three other Racers average scoring in double figures, including senior forward Jarvis Williams, who averages 15.5 points per game. Williams is 17th in the nation when it comes to field goal percentage, making close to 60 percent of his attempts per contest.

Where the Racers might struggle against the Miners is when it comes to size. Williams is listed at 6-foot-8 as the biggest man on the Murray State squad. UTEP has a 6-foot-8 guard in Washburn, a 6-foot-8 forward in sophomore forward Vince Hunter and all three centers—Lang, Hooper Vint and Matt Willms—are close to the 7-foot mark.

UTEP will continue to rely heavily on their seniors as they look to send them off in a positive manner.

Washburn, who was just named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, has been the best in scoring at a high rate since receiving the award. He has scored a season-high 19 points in his last two games, puts his career total at 1,518, making him the sixth-best in program history.

Cooper has steered the ship all season long, providing experience and composure from the point-guard position. He is a threat from beyond the arc, scoring a third-best in program history with 155 3-point field goals throughout his four-year career.

Lang, whose 10.5 points per game rank third on the team, has scored in double figures 20 times this season. In his previous three years as a Miner, he had a combined 16 double-digit performances. He leads the team in field goal percentage and has missed just four of his 23 shots over the last five games. Lang’s 58.1 career field goal average is the best in program history at the moment.

“He’s just gotten so much better,” Floyd said about Lang. “He was challenged offensively…but he is a force down there now.”

The Racers and the Miners have played on three different occasions, but the last time was in 1964. Murray State holds the edge over UTEP, winning two of the three meetings.

The expectations were as high as they have been for a while when UTEP basketball got underway in November, and after what seemed to be a very disappointing ending, the Miners have one more opportunity to make this season a memorable one. It will be one last chance for three seniors, who have been the foundation of what Floyd is trying to build in El Paso.

Washburn, Cooper and Lang have 78 wins wearing the orange and blue and would like to add five more to that total before they close the book for good.

“We’re happy we get another opportunity to play, we thought our careers were done at UTEP,” Cooper said. “We’re going to go and play hard…we want to win it.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected]