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The Great Escape: UTEP Squeaks by the Houston Cougars 57-52

Julyan Stone nailed a backbreaking three pointer with 19 seconds left to play to help UTEP escape Hofheinz Pavilion with a crucial C-USA win. The win helped the Miners keep pace with the Memphis Tigers, who knocked off UAB in overtime, atop the C-USA standings with dueling 4-1 records.

It wasn't pretty. It was a muddled, dog fight of a ball game. UTEP struggled to get into an offensive rhythm throughout the night. UTEP led by 6 with 9:09 left in the first half, 16-10, but were unable to extend that lead past that point. It was a back and forth game with neither team playing well enough to put some distance between them and their opponent.

UTEP was losing 50-49 late in the second half until Jeremy Williams nailed 2 clutch free throws to give UTEP a 50-49 lead. After a monster Wayne Portalatin rebound, UTEP went to offense. Randy Culpepper missed a jumper. Williams, however, grabbed a huge offensive rebound which led to Stone's crucial three point shot that gave UTEP a four point lead with just 19 seconds to play. Jeremy WIlliams was 4-4 from the line in the games final 2 minutes and 7-7 for the game. The value of that offensive rebound and those four points in crunchtime cannot be understated.

Randy Culpepper led UTEP with 18 points. Jeremy Williams finished with 15. Houston was led by guard Adam Brown's 22 points, including 2-2 from three point land. Here are the rest of my thoughts, in bullet points as always:

  • Shutting Down Captain Kirk: In the first half, after UTEP took that 16-10 lead, it looked for a second like the Miners would run away from the Cougars at that point. But, out of nowhere, unheralded 6'9 Houston forward Kirk Van Slyke caught fire and single handedly kept the Cougars in the ball game. Van Slyke was 5/6 from the field and had 12 points in the half. His average going into the game was 7.2 points per game. Claude Britten struggled with Van Slyke's quickness. Luckily, Jeremy WIlliams did a better job on Van Slyke in the second half and he didn't score a point in the final 20 minutes.
  • Looong NIght for Christian Polk: Christian Polk was ice cold in this one and finished a dreadful 3/12 from the field and 0/3 from three point land. Polk did hit an acrobatic layup down the stretch and finished with 6 points. He also had 5 rebounds, but he simply couldn't buy a bucket tonight.
  • "Allegedly" a Point Guard: Julyan Stone had a ridiculous 14 rebounds tonight to lead all players. In his last three games, Stone has had 15 rebounds against Tulane, 10 against Rice, and now 14 against Houston. That's a ridiculous 13 rebounds per game average. Stone had 11 rebounds against Pacific and 10 against Texas Tech, so he's had double digit boards in 5 games this season.
  • The Spark Plug: I'd be a mistake if I didn't mention Gabe McCulley's game tonight. McCulley has become UTEP's "glue guy" off the bench. When he's in the game, he's always around the basketball. He hustles, attacks the glass on both ends of the court, and has decent outside range. Tonightm McCulley had 5 rebounds (3 offensive), 2 steals, 1 assist, and was 3/4 from the line. He finished with 7 points.
  • It Was a Dog Fight: The Miners shot an atrocious 35.7% from the field (20/56) and a putrid 23.1% (3/13) from beyond the 3 point line. Luckily, Huston was just as bad from the floor. The Cougars were a less than stellar 21/49 from the field for 42.9%. The difference, amazingly, was on the glass. Despite a big game from Van Slyke and solid reserve forward Maurice McNeil, the Miners outrebounded the Coogs 40-28. UTEP had 12 offensive rebounds to Houston's 2. None bigger than Jeremy Williams' that led to the huge Julyan Stone 3 pointer.
  • Port-A-La-Teen: Wayne Portalatin played only one minute in this game but he made the absolute most of it. Wayne grabbed a pivotal rebound on the UH possession immediately preceeding the Williams go-ahead free throws.
  • Stone Solid from Three? I joked in the Gamethread that I couldn't remember the last time Julyan hit a three pointer. In fact, he had one against Tulane just last week. Stone is just 6 for 26 from three point land this season- for a meek 23% success rate. The dagger of a shot made the game all the more enjoyable for MIner fans. It was so unexpected that it was the perfect way to end a game that UTEP hardly deserved to win. I believe that UTEP is a better team than the young Cougars, but the Miners didn't look great tonight. But, I'll take a C-USA road win any night of the week. Which brings me to....
  • Just Another Night in the C-USA: Tonight, Marshall lost (at home) to East Carolina just days after beating #21 West Virginia. Rice went to Orlando and beat the once mighty Central Florida Knights. SMU outclassed Gary Flowers and Southern Miss in Dallas. Memphis edged UAB in an overtime thriller. In the C-USA anything can happen on a given gameday. I can guarantee you that tonight's "ugly" win will look like a million bucks come C-USA tournament time, but UTEP should by no means be comfortable with where they are right now. Just ask UCF. On January 5, the Knights were #18 in the nation and 14-0. Tonight, just 18 days later, the Knights are dead last in the C-USA standings and their at large NCAA Tournament hopes are now completely destroyed.