It seemed like it was finally going to fall into place for Tim Floyd and his Miners.
After watching sixth seeded Middle Tennessee upset one of the Miner's biggest threats in Old Dominion, there was a sigh of relief that UTEP would walk into the championship game in Birmingham.
After all, six weeks earlier UTEP dispatched the Blue Raiders by 13 points in El Paso. The previous year the Blue Raiders provided a huge boost of confidence to the young Miners who traveled to Murfreesboro without three key dismissed players and snapped a 25-game home conference winning streak in Tennessee. (once again)
Middle of the road Middle Tennessee who finished the regular season at 16-15 (9-9) had plans of their own and complicated matters for UTEP.
The game started with Julian Washburn missing a three within the first 30-seconds. Luckily Vince Hunter grabbed the offensive rebound and tipped it in for the first lead of the game at 2-0.
Middle Tennessee responds with a layup a minute later and it's a tied game in what would be a defensive slug fest.
On the next offensive possession, C.J. Cooper takes a nice pass from Hunter and swishes a three to give UTEP a 5-2 lead. After five scoreless possessions, Cedrick Lang lays up the ball off the assist from Hunter and gives UTEP a comfortable early 7-2 lead that resulted in an immediate timeout by Kermit Davis.
Over the next minute and a half, both teams trade layups and UTEP takes a 9-4 lead into the first media timeout with 15:12 left until halftime.
Over the next two minutes and forty seconds UTEP would continue to build on their lead jumping out to a 12-4 score. A layup by Hunter followed by a three-pointer off a Lang offensive rebound led to Middle Tennessee calling their second timeout with 13:28 until halftime.
The next three minutes provided back and forth action that saw the Miner lead fluctuate from eight, to six, back up to eight, down to six, up to eight, down to five, up to seven, and finally the biggest lead of the game for either team was at 10.
At the 10:13 mark, Earvin Morris hit a three off the assist from Washburn and pushed the score to 21-11.
It looked as if UTEP was well on its way to a 3-0 record against MTSU. It was Master (Floyd) vs Apprentice (Davis). It was UTEP with an extra day off rest. Surely the effects of playing an extra game would kick in at any moment and wear down the Blue Raiders.
Not so fast.
The following two minutes we would see MT go on a 7-0 run and trim the UTEP lead to 21-18 with 7:33 until the half.
After going on a seven minute scoring drought, Hunter missed a layup but got his own rebound and laid it back in to give UTEP a 23-18 lead with 2:53 left on the clock. The teams would trade layups into halftime and UTEP survived the first half with a 25-20 lead.
It took Middle Tennessee less than 20 seconds into the second half to make it a one possession game at 25-22. Layups by Lang and Harris would extend the Miner lead to 29-22 with 18:37 remaining in the game.
Instead of Middle Tennessee's legs tiring out and failing them, they seemed to get a burst of energy in the final critical stretch of the game. All thanks to D.J. Jones who was not even on Tim Floyd's scouting report, dropped 17 points off the bench, including five three pointers that helped energize the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee went on another 7-0 run and tied the game at 29 with 15:19 until the end of regulation. Over the next four minutes, both squads slugged it out and it appeared as if UTEP had the upper hand.
With a four point lead at 35-31 with 11:47 left in the game UTEP looked to be in good position to put their foot on the accelerator and cruise to the championship game.
Once again Middle Tennessee did not follow the script and instead started a game-changing 11-0 run that UTEP was unable to recover from.
With the Blue Riders holding a 42-35 lead and only 6:42 left on the clock UTEP was in desperate need of points.
They came in a the form of a free throw from Lang and a three-pointer from Cooper to slice the lead to 42-39 with a few seconds under six minutes remaining.
Middle Tennessee split a pair of free throws, and Washburn drained a three on the other end to bring UTEP within one at 43-42 with 4:59. But that's as close as UTEP would get that Friday afternoon in Birmingham.
The Blue Raiders went back to work and built up a six-point lead with just two minutes, until one team would be sent home.
UTEP wouldn't go away without a fight and made it a two-point game with 15 ticks left on the clock. A couple of unfortunate calls didn't go UTEP's way in the final seconds.
A missed game-tying three by Omega Harris as the buzzer went off ,and like that the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders had avenged the two previous losses and punched their ticket to the conference championship game.
With the overall record sitting at 2-1 in UTEP's advantage they have an opportunity to go back into Murfreesboro, Tennessee and prove their first victory there wasn't a fluke.
It will not be an easy task to repeat as the Murphy Center which holds 11,500 is very unwelcoming to guests. Under Davis' thirteen year watch at Middle Tennessee, they hold a 10-3 record in league home openers.
Middle Tennessee enters the contest at 8-5 having lost three of the last four. Don't for a minute even begin to think UTEP is catching them in a downward spiral.
Giddy Potts had to sit out some games due to academic issues and that contributed to the slide in the standings. He is expected to return Thursday vs. UTEP......just our luck.
It will be a classic chess match between two of the preseason favorites to win the league. With no return date to El Paso this season, the winner of this game will be in much better position holding the tiebreaker in case it is needed to sort out the seeds come conference tournament time.
Make sure to tune into American Sports Network if it's available in your market, tip off is at 5:00 p.m. Mountain Time.
For an added bonus for those who live in El Paso head over to the Haskins Center after the conclusion of the Men's game and catch our 11-1 Lady Miners take on the talented national powerhouse Lady Blue Raiders at 7 pm MT.
Tickets are only $5. If you can't make the game at least buy a ticket. These Ladies have earned it.