Saturday night started with wild news of another McKenzie Moore suspension, and ended in a wild finish of a game with the Miners dodging an upset bullet 67-64 against Western Illinois.
The Leathernecks shot 46.4 percent and forced 10 UTEP turnovers to take a one-point lead into the half time break after a back-and-forth first half.
Coach Tim Floyd announced on his pre-game radio interview that Moore and Jalen Ragland were suspended, and would not play Saturday night.
Tim Floyd on Jalen Ragland and McKenzie Moore after the game:
"We had a setback with our team today and this is going to be our new group here for a while. I'm learning more information as I sit here. It’s very disheartening. I certainly hope they come out on the positive end of what’s going on. Unfortunately I’m not able to talk about it right now. Eventually everything does come out and will come out, but right now I have been asked not to say anything. Right now they’re not with our team and I told them I’ll have more to say to them It’s unfortunate and that’s kind of where it is. I don’t know how long it will last."
This left Miner fans, and the Miners themselves looking for answers on offense, as the Miners shot a cold 37.5 percent in the first, coupled with those turnover numbers the Miners could never get in a rhythm early on to establish a solid lead.
The same trend would haunt the Miners out of the locker room, as Western Illinois sprinted out to a 41-32 lead at the 15:21 mark, forcing the Miners to play from behind for the entire second half.
Then the Miner veterans started to settle in, first John Bohannon stopped the early second half bleeding with a 3-point play, then Julian Washburn would answer with a 3-point play of his own, initiating a 6-0 UTEP run, cutting the lead to three at the 13:43 mark.
With the Miners trailing just one at the 10:11 mark, Garret Covinton would sink a 3-pointer stopping the UTEP run, and would bang another one home on the ensuing possession, after a Cedrick Lang missed bunny, putting Western Illinois back up 60-53 with 9:38 left to play.
Covington would make it three in a row from behind the arc, and give Western Illinois a six point lead almost a minute later as the Leathernecks would not let up, playing a very tough, and sound game.
Micheal Ocherobia threw down a monster dunk giving Western Illinois a ten-point, 60-50 lead with 5:12 left to play giving the Leathernecks a chance to put the Miners away in the final five minutes.
But not tonight, a huge momentum changing play came on the next possession as C.J. Cooper was fouled on a 3-point attempt and sank all three free throws giving the Miners some life.
Then those Miner veterans took over, Washburn nailed a jumper to cut the lead to five on the next Miner possession, then Washburn would hustle the Miners to within one with an offensive rebound put-back while getting hacked, nailing the free-throw, 60-59 Leathernecks with 3:04 to play.
The Miners went to the free-throw line 39 times, including 7 in the games final three minutes to pull within one once again after Vince Hunter sank a freebie with 2:11 left with the Miners still trailing 62-61.
Then the Miner faithful would get loud as the home court advantage sank in, the Miners clamped down on defense forcing Jabri Sandifer to cough it up, giving the Miners life with under a minute to play and possession.
The Motorcity Motor Vince Hunter would muscle down a C.J. Cooper missed attempt at a three, then he muscled it back home to give the Miners their first lead since the 17:51 mark of the second half, 65-64 with 43.5 seconds left.
Western Illinois had a chance on their next possession to shock the Miner world, though Bohannon would pull down rebound number 12 of the night as Covington miss fired on a chance to grab back the lead.
C.J. Cooper was a perfect 9/9 from the free throw line for all 9 of his points, and calmly gave UTEP a three point lead netting two free throws with only five ticks left, giving the Leathernecks one last gasp.
Western Illinois couldn't even get off a final prayer, the Miners defended to the very last second forcing Jordan Foster to fumble it away as time expired, Miners win and exhale.
Bohanon and Washburn willed their way to the line as both combined for 22 free throws on the night, Washburn lead all scorers with 18 points, Bohannon had 15 points, and his third double-double in the last five games as he also had 12 rebounds.
Tim Floyd after the win:
"Obviously we feel very fortunate. We played a team that we knew it was going to be very difficult to score.They had five guys packed in that lane all night long and did a great, great job defensively, I thought Julian and Bo really played well late with big offensive and defensive boards, They are understanding where you win games late now. We’re not cranking up 18 footers. There’s a reason why we shot a lot of free throws. We were able to get the ball around the basket against a team that was packed in very well. We got the ball off the offensive board several times and we played with good poise late in terms of not fouling and getting great defensive stops, we won the game on the offensive boards late and at the foul line, I feel for their staff and their kids. They played their tails off and gave themselves every opportunity to win the game.”
Vince Hunter was also solid again with 14 points, and 9 rebounds, more importantly he did not foul out, and also proved he will be vital in defending on the perimeter down the stretch in close conference games.
Garret Covington finished with 16 points on 4/7 shooting from 3-point land to lead Western Illinois who shot 46.2 percent from the field for the game.
The Miners would finish at 34.6 percent from field, and finished with 15 turnovers, still managing to swipe away a win in front of Miner legend Tim Hardaway watching from his court side seat.
UTEP will face Denver tomorrow night who got 16 points from 4 three pointers by sharp shooter Brett Olson to dismantle Alcorn State 67-49 in the first game of the night, with both Denver and UTEP victorious, the winner of tomorrow's game will get some hardware and will be crowned champs.