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Miners in Possession: UTEP Squeaks by Marshall to Win C-USA Title

Randy Culpepper had 32 points and Derrick Caracter chipped in 18 to lead the UTEP Miners to an 80-76 victory over the Marshall Thundering Herd.

The 1st Half: A Slow Start With a Swift Finish

UTEP struggled out of the gate as Derrick Caracter and Jeremy Williams both picked up two early fouls. Claude Britten came off the bench to fill in for Caracter and had ten crucial points (he finished with 14) to help the Miners fight off early Marshall momentum. Despite Britten's spark, and some early three's from Randy Culpepper, Marshall dominated the last ten minutes of the half. Hassan Whiteside struggled from the field, missing his first six shots, but the Herd still led 36-26 in the final minute of the half.

Then, an incredible sequence of events at the end of the half swung the momentum back in UTEP's favor. First, Randy Culpepper was mugged while taking a three point shot but the officials didn't call a foul. Marshall had what seemed to be an easy fast break to extend the lead to 12 with seconds to play. Amazingly, Julyan Stone came away with a steal and he passed the ball back to Culpepper. He promptly launched a three from six or seven feet beyond the arc and drained it as time expired. Instead of going in down 12 with no momentum, UTEP stormed off the court down a manageable seven and with some much-needed swagger in their step.

The 2nd Half: Off to the Races

Randy Culpepper picked up right where he left off in the second half, draining three pointer after three pointer. He made seven three's on eleven attempts. Three of them came in sequence in the half's first three minutes. UTEP kicked off the second half with a 14-2 run, and surged ahead to lead by 10 with under 11:00 to play. The run was highlighted by an explosive Randy Culpepper dunk that absolutely silenced the crowd.

But, Marshall just wouldn't go away. Tyler Wilkerson and Hassan Whiteside seemed to grab every rebound on both ends of the court and Darryl Merthie and Chris Lutz drained some big three pointers to get Marshall the lead with under six minutes to go. Marshall dominated the glass; out-rebounding the Miners 47-30.

Focus on the Big Man

Tony Barbee had a tough decision at the 4:47 mark of the second half. UTEP was trailing 66-67 and Derrick Caracter had just picked up his fourth personal foul. UTEP's offense was complacent, the crowd was roaring, and it looked like Marshall was about to take control of the game. So, did Tony Barbee take Caracter out of the game to keep him from fouling out immediately? Did he scale back his role in the game? Nope. Instead, Barbee directed Stone and Culpepper to feed Caracter the ball over and over again. How did the big man respond? He scored 10 points in those final minutes.

Derrick Caracter May Have Made Himself a Lot of Money Tonight

Caracter has been on the NBA radar screens since high school. Tonight's game drew the attention of fourteen NBA scouts. Those scouts were there to see Hassan Whiteside and Derrick Caracter duke it out in the paint. Whiteside had a solid game (20 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks), but during the final five minutes, Caracter put on an absolute clinic offensively. Derrick faced double teams from Whiteside and Wilkerson, but used his raw strength to bully them both around. He showed incredible agility for his size by using impressive low-post footwork to break double-teams and knock Whiteside out of position. He used a soft jump hook to float shots out of Whiteside's reach. Derrick Caracter absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game.

It's Julyan with a Y

Myron Strong's impressive play over the last few weeks had me wondering if his minutes would continue to climb. Tonight, we saw just how much Tony Barbee trusts Julyan Stone. Stone didn't score a lot, in fact he only had two points on two free throws, but he played ferocious defense and distributed the ball with incredible efficiency. In thirty-five minutes of action, Julyan had 9 assists, 4 steals, and most importantly he committed only a single turnover. Julyan Stone absolutely got back on track tonight.

The Bottom Line: Color Me Impressed

Facing a hostile crowd, against an RPI Top 75 team, in a game where they couldn't get a lot of favorable calls from the refs, the Miners played tough basketball. We all know that UTEP hasn't been ranked in 18 long years. The Miners aren't used to having a bulls-eye on their backs. In C-USA, Memphis has had that honor for nearly the entire time UTEP has been in the league. The Miners have been somewhat complacent in previous wins against inferior teams (USM, Rice), but tonight, UTEP came ready for a prize fight. UTEP took Marshall's best shot but the Miners didn't fold. Rather, UTEP showed they can handle the pressure that comes with a ranking and league title. Of course, the win was far from perfect. The Miners missed free throws, didn't rebound well, and committed 12 turnovers. But in the end, the result showed the rest of the league that UTEP can handle being the team everyone else wants to beat. The Miners showed they have no intention of letting up in March.