In what was perhaps the worst, yet in ways best performance of the year for the Miners, UTEP rallied back from a nine point halftime deficit, and surged ahead in the final nine minutes of the contest to drop Rice 68-57.
For the second game in a row, the Miners' opponent opened up the game hot from downtown. Rice nailed its first two shots from deep, and jumped ahead 8-0 before the Miners even knew what had hit them.
Julian Washburn finally got the Orange and Blue on the board with a pair of free throws nearly four minutes in, but UTEP would continue to struggle on both ends of the floor for the the majority of the first twenty minutes.
The Owls actually led for the entirety of the first half, and while Washburn was able to keep the Miners within striking distance, Rice would eventually take a nine point lead into the locker rooms.
UTEP would respond though, opening up the second half with a quick 9-0 run to tie the ball game up with 16:17 to play. The Owls, however, responded with a run of their own, and quickly pushed the lead back to seven at 37-30 just two minutes later.
Rice would continue to nail big shots and keep the Miners off balance offensively for the first ten minutes of the final half, but that would be as long as they could hold them off.
Down 47-38 with 9:08 to play, the Miners dug deep, banded together, and found a way to chip back into the game. Five consecutive free throws brought them to within four at 47-43, and following a made bucket by the Owls, a huge Jake Flaggert three ball put UTEP back within three.
A C.J. Cooper four point play with 6:03 to play put the Miners ahead 51-49, and though there was one more tie just moments later, the Miners would own the rest of the game.
Three consecutive three point trips by the Miners put them up 60-51 with 3:23 to play, with the final one being another Flaggert three that effectively ended the ball game. The Miners would go up by as many as 14 in the closing moments, and in the end walked away with the 68-57 victory.
Julian Washburn, who almost single handedly carried the Miners in the first half, led the way with 17 points and 8 rebounds, to go along with 5 assists. C.J. Cooper also finished with 17 points, all of which came in his huge second half.
Vince Hunter finished the night with 14 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists, and while no other Miner scored in double digits, both Cedrick Lang (8 points and 9 rebounds) and Jake Flaggert (6 points) were both instrumental in the win.
The Miners, who shot and ice cold 30.8% from the field in the first half, used a 54.5% performance in the second half en route to a 41.7% effort for the game. Rice was held to just 29.6% from the field in the final twenty minutes, and just 35.7% for the contest.
UTEP, who was dominated on the glass in the first half, came back to win that battle 36-34, and also forced the Owls into 11 turnovers while committing 10 of their own.
Coach Tim Floyd had this to say following the win:
"I don't want to sit here and start talking about how we were flat...I'd prefer to talk about Rice and what a great job their coach does with that team to come in here and play with that kind of poise, on the road, in front of our crowd who I thought was outstanding. We don't win that game on the road without our crowd...Our athleticism, our will to defend the first four minutes of the second half, and then the last ten minutes of the ball game were the keys to the game for us."
That may certainly be the case. The official attendance of 11,036 was by far the largest of the season, and definitely did their part when the Miners needed them the most.
Rice entered the contest with a great gameplan, executed it well, knocked down shots, and nearly came up with a huge win in the Haskins Center.
The Miners must be able to adjust and defend a bit better against teams that can shoot the three ball. Louisiana Tech and Rice both shot plenty from distance this week, and truth be told if a few more go down for those teams, this week's record could've easily gone from 2-0 to 0-2.
Regardless of that though, the Miners, once again, showed that they are a team that is evolving into the complete package. As its already been said a few times tonight, what that team did in the final ten minutes of that ball game is exactly what good teams do. In fact, that's what championship caliber teams do.
Now, the Miners will have to get back to the drawing board, and prepare for a tough road swing that will feature a pair of games against two opponents who are more than capable of defending their home court. They'll take on ECU on Thursday and will then face Old Dominion Saturday. Tipoff for Thursday's game is slated for 7:00 p.m. MT, and the game will be carried live by Fox Sports 1.
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