Final games to decide Miners fate

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Final games to decide Miners fate

Mike Flores, Staff Reporter

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A two-game win streak doesn’t mean much in the big picture of a basketball season, but the last two wins for the UTEP men’s basketball team, coming against Louisiana Tech (74-72) and Southern Mississippi (73-44), put them in the driver’s seat for a spot in the upcoming Conference USA tournament in Frisco, Texas.

Now at 10-18 and 5-11 in Conference USA, the Miners have a two-game lead over Rice for the final spot in the conference tournament, with only two games remaining in the regular season.

Here are five things to know for UTEP’s final two games on the road against Rice and North Texas to finish off the regular season.

1. One win for UTEP and they’re in

By this time last season, UTEP was fighting for a first-round bye in the C-USA tournament, but this season, the team is battling just to clinch a spot in the tournament.

The top-12 teams in C-USA by the end of the regular season earn their chance to battle against one another to get into the biggest stage in college basketball—the NCAA tournament. UTEP is currently the 12th seed in C-USA, and has a two-game lead on Rice (6-23, 3-11 C-USA) and four-game lead on last place Charlotte (5-22, 1-15 C-USA).

If the Miners were to beat Rice for the second time this season on March 1, that would eliminate the Owls from tournament contention and get UTEP in no matter the outcome in their final game. But if UTEP were to come up short against Rice, that would mean the Owls would still have a small chance to snatch that 12th spot from the Miners—if UTEP were to lose their last two games and if Rice were to win their final two games.

A win over North Texas would secure the Miners’ C-USA tournament spot as well.

2. UTEP could still move up in the standings

Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic have six conference wins each and are both only a game above UTEP in the current standings.

For UTEP, they have a winnable game against Rice since the Miners have already handily beat the Owls earlier this season, 80-62.

But for Southern Miss, they are coming off their worst conference loss of the season from the hands of UTEP, 73-44, and have also lost five of their last six games. It won’t get any easier for the Golden Eagles as they are set to face a LA Tech team for the second time this year, who has already beaten them, 89-66.

For FAU, they have a top-three team in Old Dominion coming up on their schedule. ODU has won six of their last seven games and holds C-USA’s top-ranked defense, only giving up 63.5 points per game. However, FAU holds two things over UTEP if they were to end with the same record—the Owls have beaten the Miners head-to-head and FAU has last-place Charlotte still remaining on their schedule.

3. UTEP avoided a home-losing record

Coming into their final homestand of the season, UTEP had a 7-8 home record and was on the verge of finishing with a home-losing record for only the second time since they’ve played at the Don Haskins Center.

But with a nail-biting win over LA Tech, 74-72, and a blowout victory over Southern Miss, the Miners secured their 15th straight winning season at home.

Away from the Don Haskins Center this year, UTEP is 1-7, with their only road win coming against a one-win Charlotte team on a last-second shot from Paul Thomas.

4. Omega Harris has found his offensive game

In UTEP’s two-game winning streak, senior guard Omega Harris scored 21 points in both games to help lead his team to victories.

His stats read an average of only 11.4 points per game, but if the last two games were any indicator of how Harris is going to play in the final games of his college career, UTEP could finally lean on his usual consistent scoring.

With UTEP’s second-leading scorer Keith Frazier (11 points per game) seeing very limited playing time since coming back from his mid-season departure, and with a UTEP offense that is last in C-USA in scoring (67.8 points per game), UTEP will need repeat performances from Harris if they hope to keep the season alive.

5. Tournament experience could be crucial for the years to come

UTEP will be losing four players—Harris, Matt Willms, Jake Flaggert and Frazier—when the 2017-18 season comes to an end. On the other hand, despite their record and struggles this season, the Miners have some key talent to turn to in the upcoming years with five freshmen and one sophomore transfer making their UTEP debuts this year.

The new faces this year for UTEP—Evan Gilyard, Tirus Smith, Trey Wade, Kobe Magee and Isiah Osborne—have played significant minutes already, but there is nothing like post-season play to gain the experience and knowledge of a one-elimination tournament.

  Follow Mike Flores on Twitter @mikey__flores

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