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C-USA title eludes UTEP as Miners fall to Western Kentucky

Junior forward Kevin Kalu jumps up in attempt to lay the ball over the defense of Liberty, Mar. 14. Photo courtesy of UTEP Athletics.

For two days, the Miners wrote a Cinderella story that had them punching their ticket to the big dance, the NCAA tournament, for the first time since 2010. That fairytale ended March 16, as UTEP suffered a gut-wrenching loss to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and a chance for the NCAA tournament.  

UTEP finished the season with 16 wins and 15 losses and had to win the conference title to secure an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament, as their regular-season record was not good enough to qualify them.

Facing must-win circumstances, the Miners were able to gut out a tough opening-round win March 14 against the Liberty Flames, a team UTEP beat on the road. The blue and orange faced a 12-point deficit in the second half but clamped down on the defensive end to catch up to the Flames with just under six minutes to go, allowing the Flames to score only three points during that stretch. UTEP secured a nine-point win with excellent free throw shooting as the time melted away in the opening round.

The Miners faced Conference USA’s regular-season champion and No. 1 seed in the tournament, the Sam Houston State Bearkats March 15. UTEP was able to get out to an early eight-point first-half lead before the Bearkats would claw back into the game, and by the end of the half, Sam Houston would build a six-point lead over UTEP.  

The Bearkats would pull away in the second half, building as much as a 14-point lead, aided by UTEP scoring droughts that plagued the Miners all season. With just over 13 minutes to go, things looked bleak for UTEP, but a 25-4 run led by stars junior guard Corey Camper Jr. and senior guard Tae Hardy gave the Miners the lead with over four and a half minutes to go.

UTEP would hold on despite a furious onslaught by the Bearkats. With excellent play in the paint offensively and on the free throw line by senior guard Zid Powell, the Miners secured their win over the top seed.

UTEP went on to face the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the Conference USA Championship game March 16. The Miners started the game strong, leading by as many as 10 points in the first half, but the Hilltoppers would mount a comeback and go into the half leading by two.

The Miners would again start strong in the second half, leaning on their defense to bog down the Hilltopper’s offense and build a seven-point lead five minutes into the second half. At this point, UTEP was 15 minutes away from winning the C-USA title for the first time in school history. UTEP also had a 75% win percentage that had fans like Angel Ramos excited. 

“You could feel it. It was so close; we were about to punch our ticket,” Ramos said.  

Offense struggles have plagued UTEP all season, and this game was no different; after the Miners went up by seven, they would endure scoring droughts that lasted as long as five minutes that buried the Miner’s hopes for a Cinderella story.  

UTEP Head Coach Joe Golding had this to say about the stagnant offense. “The turnovers obviously got us,” Golding said. “We just turned the basketball over, and they were able to get out in transition. Then, we couldn’t score there for that stretch in the second half.” 

UTEP’s offense was not the only problem as UTEP’s defense couldn’t slow the Hilltopper’s offensive onslaught, particularly junior guard of the Hilltoppers Don McHenry, who scored 25 points on 56% shooting.  

“Credit to them, they played a good game. (McHenry) is a special player. We couldn’t get him corralled tonight,” Golding said.  

Although Western Kentucky would dash the Miner’s hopes with a 78-71 victory, taking the C-USA championship, UTEP still had a lot to be proud of. 

“I’m proud of our group. This group has been resilient, not just this week, but all year. It’s a tough, tough group, and they’ve been fun to coach. I’m just proud,” Golding said. “(Our seniors), they got UTEP basketball back to where it belongs, and that’s playing for championships.”   

UTEP had an unprecedented run to the finals, with their five seed being the lowest in their 13 appearances in the conference tournament championship game. They pulled off a major upset by defeating the No.1 seed, Sam Houston, in the semifinals, which was their first victory against a top seed at the league tournament since the 1993 WAC Championships.

Now, UTEP will move on to build on the success of this season’s conference tournament while saying goodbye to seniors Jon Dos Anjos, Tae Hardy, Zid Powell and Calvin Solomon.

Jorge Guajardo is a staff reporter and may be reached at [email protected] 

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About the Contributor
Jorge Guajardo
Jorge Guajardo, Staff Reporter
Jorge Ian Guajardo, is 30 years old and born and raised in El Paso. He is majoring in multimedia journalism and minoring in English rhetoric. He is a contributor at The Prospector looking to lay the foundation for a long and successful career in journalism once he graduates.
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