The UTEP Miners got by the NMSU Aggies 55-54 Wednesday night at the Don Haskins Center, evening the all-time Battle of I-10 record at 102-102.
The Miners came out Wednesday night and did something fans hadn't seen them do in quite some time; get off to a good offensive start. Over the last four contests, the Orange and Blue had made it a habit of falling into double digit holes early on, and trying to fight their way out of it the rest of the way.
In this one, UTEP actually led for most of the first half. They held leads of 5 and 6 at multiple points in the first 20 minutes, but could never stretch it any further than that. The Aggies fought back to take their own lead, and capped a well contested first half with a shot at the buzzer to take a four point lead into the locker rooms.
The momentum for the Aggies continued into the second half, as they led the majority of the way. In fact, the Miners led only twice in the second 20 minutes, for a total of 19 seconds. The first came at the 4:37 mark, as sophomore guard/forward Julian Washburn knocked down a jumper to put the Miners ahead 48-46.
Fourteen seconds later, the Aggies tied the game up on a pair free throws, and took the lead once again soon after that. It wouldn't be until the closing seconds that the Miners would take only their second lead of the final 20 minutes.
Trailing 54-50 with under 45 seconds to play, UTEP sophomore guard C.J. Cooper came up with a huge steal, raced the other way and fed center John Bohannon who finished the play with the bucket, and one, to bring the Miners to within one at 54-53.
After a timeout, New Mexico State senior forward Tyrone Watson decided it was time to get cute, throwing the inbound pass off the back of Julian Washburn. He grabbed it, and quickly took it down court. The problem for the Aggies was Watson lost control of the ball, and wound up getting himself called for a double dribble with 23 seconds to play.
The Miners came right back down the court and fed Bohannon. He missed his shot in the lane, but freshman forward Chris Washburn was right there to pick up the board. After getting fouled on the putback attempt, Washburn calmly stepped to the line and drained two free throws with 5 seconds to play to give the Miners a 55-54 advantage.
NMSU sophomore guard Daniel Mullings had a contested look from the top of the key as time expired, but the shot rimmed out, and the Miners escaped with the victory by the narrowest of margins.
The Miners were led by sophomore guard/forward Julian Washburn who finished with 20 points on 8-13 shooting, easily his best performance of the year thus far. John Bohannon finished with 15 points and 5 rebounds, Chris Washburn finished with 7 points and 4 rebounds, and senior point Jacques Streeter had 7 points and 7 assists.
The Aggies were led by Tyrone Watson, who finished the night with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. Junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe and sophomore guard K.C. Ross-Miller finished with 9 points apiece.
While it wasn't a dominating performance, or even a great offensive performance, there was plenty of positive to take away from this one for the Miners.
After losing four straight, and coming in to face a much more experienced NMSU squad, this could've been a time to fold. They didn't. After being down six with only minutes to play, again they could've folded. They didn't.
Both John Bohannon and Julian Washburn established themselves as the go to guys on the offensive end. That was something that had been missing to this point. And, Chris Washburn continues to bloom into a great player right before our eyes.
With 5 seconds left, and the game on the line, he stroked two free throws that touched nothing but nylon. Not many players, in that type of atmosphere, can do that. Much less freshman.
So, the Miners are back on the winning track, or at least have something to build on. Next up, they'll play the Idaho Vandals next Saturday in the Haskins Center. At 1-4, Idaho has been struggling, and more than that, senior guard Konner Tucker expects to be back in action. He could be the spark plug that gets this offensive motor running.
The Miners now have better than a week to prepare for Idaho, and better than a week after that to get ready for a tough stretch that will feature #24 UNLV, Oregon, and likely Nebraska in less than a week's time. We'll see how much they've progressed at that point, as conference play will be right around the corner.