The Miners opened up their Battle For Atlantis Campaign in solid fashion Thursday night, as they came out strong, built up an early lead, and were able to weather every Volunteer storm en route to a 78-70 victory in the tournament's first round.
Tennessee opened the game with a quick three just 15 seconds into the contest, and would lead by as many as four at 8-4 in the opening minutes, but the Miners would quickly respond, using a 13-2 run over a span of about 5:30 to open up a 17-10 lead.
The Volunteers would respond with a 10-2 run of their own, regaining the lead at 20-19, but the lead wouldn't last for long. The Miners would lead by as many as 10 in the closing seconds of the first twenty minutes, and would enjoy a 36-28 advantage at the break.
Again, Tennessee would knock in the first basket of the half, another three ball that cut the Miners lead to five at 36-31, but the Miners were just heating up. They would score 8 straight from there to quickly push their lead to 13 at 44-31.
The Miners would eventually lead by as many as 15 at 60-45 with just six minutes to play, but the game was still far from over. Tennessee outscored the Miners 16-7 over the next four minutes to get back within six with still more than two minutes to play, but that was as close as they would get.
UTEP would push its lead back into double digits on multiple occasions in the closing moments, and would eventually walk away with the 78-70 victory.
McKenzie Moore led the way for the Miners, going for 19 points and 4 rebounds, but also had 4 turnovers and no assists. John Bohannon had 16 and 3 rebounds, and Julian Washburn and Justin Crosgile each finished with 12.
Jordan McCrae led the Volunteers with a game high 22 points to go along with 7 rebounds, and Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson each finished with 13.
As a team, the Miners shot 58% from the field, while holding the Volunteers to just 34.9%. They were also able to force them into 15 turnovers, but were completely dominated on the glass, 46-28. The Miners also gave up a staggering 26 offensive boards.
UTEP Coach Tim Floyd had this to say following the win:
"It was a real good win for us...Our guys had three great days of practice. We played like our loss to NM State bothered us, and it should've bothered us...Julian did a great job on things that won't show up on the stat sheet like getting back on defense, which he had not done a very good job of for four or five games. I think he understands how important that is because we didn't give up any transition layups or baskets. He was great at his assignment and job. I thought the job McKenzie did on McRae was a real key. He didn't allow many catches. The kid is a hell of a player and he kind of nullified what he was doing."
The win was a great one for the Miners, and one that could potentially be that one that puts them over the hump. There were, however, plenty of things to improve on, namely rebounding and handling pressure.
The Miners did a great job early on in handling Tennessee's full court pressure, but they were forced into a handful of turnovers late in the game that really kept the Volunteers alive.They've simply got to get better at handling the press because next time they may not be so lucky.
Also, the Miners just have to do a better job rebounding the basketball. There's no question that Tennessee was a strong team with great athletes, but getting dominated on the boards, especially giving up that many offensive boards, is just not a recipe for success.
Overall though, it was a great performance from the Miners. They were able to play strong defense, without getting into too much foul trouble early, and they were able to get a ton of high percentage shots. Really, that's all you can ask for.
More than that, they handled the adversity well, and were able to maintain their composure every time Tennessee would put a run together. The Miners were actually able to keep Tennessee at bay, maintaing at least a six point margin for the final 22 minutes of the game.
This was truly a great win for this team, but they won't have much time to celebrate. They now advance into the winner's side of the Battle For Atlantis Bracket, and will take on #23 Iowa tomorrow night at 5:00 p.m. MT. That game will be televised by NBC Sports.
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