FIU and Dennis Mavin welcomed the small morning crowd at the Legacy Arena to March Madness Wednesday.
Mavin hit a desperation, banked in 30-foot something prayer to send UTSA home with a First Round heart ripping loss. (No word yet on if he called bank)
The All C-USA second-team selection scored 15 points, and fellow guard Ray Rodriguez added 14 points in the offensive struggle fest with UTSA.
Mavin has scored in double figures in every game but two this season, including 23 points in the earlier home court match up with UTEP.
Posting 65 career double digit scoring games, Mavin ranked third in the conference in scoring coming into the tournament, and has led FIU in scoring in 23 of their 32 games this season.
Two perimeter players of concern outside of Mavin for Floyd and the Miners will be Rodriguez, and also the very athletic Daviyon Draper who scored 21 points via 9/14 shooting in the Miners 67-64 escape in Miami back in early February.
"We do know that Florida International had us beat, 64-63, with 22 seconds to go. And we got a tip-in from a point guard [Omega Harris] who was supposed to be back on defense." UTEP head coach Tim Floyd said of preparing for an unknown opponent. "You work on us. You work on who we are, you game prep in a variety of different options and looks. Might we need some zone? Might we need to trap the post? Might we need a secondary press offense? Can we inbound the ball against pressure? All of those things that are so important to winning games."
A huge cause of concern before the first UTEP-FIU match up was how UTEP would go about handling FIU's versatile seven-footer Adrian Diaz.
Diaz collected a quiet double-double as Cedrick Lang forced him into early and often foul trouble. No denying the kid can take over a game as shown with his impressive regular season ending points, rebounds, and blocks triple-double against UAB, although it's been rare for a big man to control the game to that extent against UTEP during the conference slate this season.
He was neutralized by UTSA's big's Wednesday morning, something UTEP will certainly try to do and did very well in the first matchup, but the Golden Panthers still managed to shoot 46.9 percent in the first go around against UTEP.
Diaz set a school record with 95 blocks on the year, ranking first in the conference in blocks to finish the regular season. Diaz's field goal percentage is ranked second in the conference and his total blocked shot numbers ranked sixth nationally before the start of championship week.
Guard play will be a huge deciding factor not only this game, but in UTEP's quest to Saturday afternoon glory.
"Generally guard play carries you through these [games]," Floyd said. "You have to have guards that can go play for three days, guards that can play in a lot of different situations, can make shots if they're zoned, can penetrate and kick if they're not, can play under pressure, presses, all of those things. That's why we always talk about the importance of guard play."
C.J. Cooper had a rough final go around in the Don last Saturday, but when Julian Washburn slashes, shoots, and scores efficiently it adds a non-existent this season dimension to this team.
UTEP is 11-1 when Cooper scores in double figures this season, and is 15-4 when Earvin Morris scores in double figures, showing the production needed now that its win or go home.
Floyd emphasized the need for Cooper to be factor in the tournament if UTEP has any advancing hopes.
"C.J. has had stretches where he has been as good as any guard in our league and we're going to need that type of performance from him. He is a guy who certainly has the game experience and the know-how. I think he has the poise, and that's important as well."
The Miners have seen great play recently from Cedrick Lang, Hooper Vint, and Matt Willms has had an impactful comeback, but their production and effort is almost becoming a pleasant given for UTEP.
What needs to develop into another given during the tournament is the shot making, and ability to change the game from a scoring standpoint from UTEP's guards.
"I was pleased with our offensive patience and selection when our shot-making was not there," Floyd said. "Sometimes you can go fire ‘em up like we did at Western Kentucky and not make any at 0-for-17 [from three-point range], and continue to shoot them and maybe shoot yourself in the foot. We didn't do that. We understood that it wasn't our night. We played through our bigs, they shot free throws and we were able to squeak out a win."
When UTEP's guards are scoring at will, (see the recent North Texas game) the ball moves a little crisper, the looks for everyone are little easier, and the intensity picks up on the defensive end via the momentum gained from a good look.
Julian Washburn has scored 84 total points in his three previous Conference Tournament's and will be needed to do exactly what he did against Rice to end the regular season.
The last time UTEP was a two seed in a conference tournament was back in 2005 when UTEP won the WAC Tournament, UTEP has reached the championship game the previous five times they were seeded as a two going back to the WAC Tournament days as well.
The difference between Miner greats and Miner legends is decided in March, will the three great seniors take another step towards being UTEP legends?
It all starts with FIU on Thursday morning.
A-ROD's opening line: UTEP -9.5
|Who?||#2 UTEP Miners (21-9) vs. #10 FIU Golden Panthers (16-16)|
|Date/Time||Thursday, March 12th, 11:00 a.m. Mountain Time|
|Location||Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama|
American Sports Network
|Series Record||UTEP leads 4-0|