Miners win WestStar basketball tournament

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

For the first time since 2014, the UTEP Miners won its home basketball tournament and coincidently, the Kent State Golden Flashes were a participant that season as it was this year. Since its last tournament championship, the Miners have had a 3-5 record in the WestStar Classic. 

The Miners (8-1) won its opening matchup against North Carolina A & T (3-9) with a comfortable 72-54 win that saw sophomore Souley Boum explode for 26 points on 8 for 13 shooting. Boum had a great overall game adding seven rebounds, three assists with a block, and steal. Junior Bryson Williams continued his strong play with another double-double scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds. 

In the Championship matchup, the Miners faced the University of California at Irvine (UCI) Anteaters. The Anteaters (7-6) staved off a late challenge from The Kent State Golden Flashes (9-2) 74-68. Sophomore forward Collin Welp led the team with 18 points. An NCAA tournament team that advanced past the University of Kansas last season, the Anteaters were expected to be a tough test for the young Miners. 

For most of the game, the Anteaters lived up to that expectation. UCI scored the first six points of the matchup while holding the Miners scoreless for the first three and half minutes of the half. Sophomore guard Jordan Lathon hit a three to tie it at six at around the 15-minute mark. The Miners went on to score 15 straight points leading early 15-6. Chipping away slowly at the UTEP lead UCI finally tied the game at 30 with a buzzer-beater by Eyassu Worku to end the half. 

At the half, the Miners were shooting only 38 percent while the Anteaters were shooting 50 percent from the field. UCI has a small rebound advantage at the half but UTEP got to the foul line 8 more times than the Anteaters. 

UCI started the second half scoring the first four points taking the lead, which would be its last of the night. The Miners proceeded to go on a 10-point run to take the lead 40-34. Defensively the Miners were able to clamp down on every player from Irvine not named Worku. Taking a 10-point lead 52-42 the Miners seemed well on the way to a comfortable victory until a nine-point UCI run closed the gap to one point. 

After battling back and forth, the Anteaters tied the score at the five-minute mark 59-59. During the next three minutes, both teams fought hard defensively with no team able to score. The Anteaters had taken control of the offensive boards in the second half with 11 as the Miners missed eight consecutive shots to get UCI back into the game. 

The significant difference down the stretch was UTEP’s ability to get to the foul line. During the last eight minutes of the game, the Miners only scored one field goal but made 10 free throws during that period. That field goal was a layup with less than a minute left in the game by Williams which gave the Miners the lead 64-61. On the next possession, the Anteater’s Worku missed two three-pointers and then fouled Miner senior Darryl Edwards who connected on both free throws. 

Leading 66-61 the Miners then clamped down to close out UCI scoring one more free-throw point to make it a final 67-61. Worku made a game effort scoring 19 points as the only player in double digits for the Anteaters. UCI dominated the rebounding by a 44-27 margin but a season-high 36 free throws for the Miners sealed the win. The Miners had a 25-point free throw advantage on the night, which is near impossible for an opposing team to overcome. 

Williams led the way for the Miners with 22 points, Boum had 11 and Lathon had 13. Honored as the Tournament MVP Williams averaged 21.5 points per game, Boum was named to the all-tournament team for his combined 37 points. Lathon was named the Don Haskins Award winner of the tournament. 

“We did a great job of attacking the paint and putting pressure on the basket. When you do those kinds of things, it gives itself an opportunity to go to the foul line,” UTEP Head Coach Rodney Terry said. “We got to the line 36 times and we did a pretty good job shooting free throws tonight, making 28 of those. That was a big part of the game.” 

The UTEP Miners take on the University of Houston Cougars 6 p.m. Dec. 19 in Houston. The game will be televised on ESPN3 and the radio at ESPN 600 El Paso. 

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected]