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UTEP comes up short during crunch time in 78-72 road loss to Middle Tennessee

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The effort was there, but UTEP couldn't find an answer down the stretch..

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Tennessee's experience, size, and a red-hot start ended up being the difference as UTEP dropped their first C-USA game of the season at Middle Tennessee 78-72.

Darnell Harris scored a game high 21 points to lead the Blue Raiders, with Perrin Buford adding 15 points, and eight rebounds, while Reggie Upshaw produced 12 points, and 12 rebounds.

Middle Tennessee came out scorching hot, hitting their first four looks from behind the three point line, and took a quick 15-4 lead into the under 16 timeout thanks to a three from Darnell Harris who started 2-of-2 from three point land.

Trey Touchet would knock down a three pointer a couple minutes later to bring UTEP within four trailing 16-12 at the 13:04  mark of the first half, but Middle kept wearing out the net from long distance in the first half.

After a nifty jump stop, and layup from Perrin Buford put Middle Tennessee up 20-12, Xavier Habersham would knock down a triple after a pair of Terry Winn free throws.  Edward Simpson kept the run going as he drilled a three pointer at the 10:12 mark to give the Blue Raiders a 26-14 lead, capping off a quick 10-2 run.

Middle Tennessee would go on a 1-for-6 stretch from the field, as UTEP still trailed 28-20, but Buford snatched a key offensive rebound and a put back bucket putting Middle back up by double digits at 30-20 with 5:14 left until halftime.

That cold stretch eventually turned into a 2-of-15 mark from the field by the Blue Raiders, parlayed with a three minute scoring drought that helped UTEP keep things close at halftime as the final two minutes would go back-and-forth.

UTEP finished the first half outscoring Middle Tennessee 14-7 in the final five minutes with Omega Harris swishing a corner three, then Lee Moore sent the Miners into the locker room with momentum via a clutch and much needed three right before the buzzer.

But Middle Tennessee took a 37-34 lead into the halftime break.

Middle Tennessee finished the first half 7-of-13 from three point land, led by Buford who scored 10 points in the first half.

A rabid pace to end the first half carried over into the second half, for an entertaining final twenty minutes of basketball.

Hooper Vint and Terry Winn scored UTEP's first 10 points of the second half, but it was Dominic Artis who hit a triple to give UTEP their second lead of the game 47-45 at the 15:02 mark to open the second half.

The Blue Raiders would then score six straight to grab a 51-47 lead with 13:32 left, but Tim Floyd's changing defenses, and some gritty stretches from UTEP kept chipping away at the small deficit over the next six minutes.

Things would continue to be nip-and-tuck for the next six minutes with UTEP constantly changing defenses that helped keep things close until a Middle Tennessee run gave them some space on the scoreboard.

UTEP would come up empty on three straight trips, spurring an 8-2 run and a 70-61 Blue Raider lead after a Jaqwan Raymond layup with 7:45 left in the game.

That run seemed like the dagger that would put UTEP away, but Lee Moore had other plans.

Moore would score seven straight for UTEP in the midst of a 9-2 run, with a pair off free throws trimming the lead to 72-70 with 2:34 left in the game.

He would end up scoring UTEP's final nine points of the night, but the Miners came up with only two points in their final five possessions in the final 2:34 with UTEP finishing the game 1-of-7 from the field.

Moore finished with 20 points leading all UTEP scorers, Terry Winn turned in another strong performance with 16 points, and 13 rebounds.

Hooper Vint also reached double figures with 12 points, but the Miners were out rebounded 43-39, with 17 rebounds for Middle Tennessee coming on the offensive end.

In the end, UTEP simply left way too many opportunities on the floor in the final two minutes to pick up a road win, but a few things were encouraging.

UTEP went 21-of-26 from the free throw line, and held the Blue Raiders to 42 percent shooing, also forcing eight turnovers.  But 22 total second chance points drilled UTEP, with 14 of those points coming in the second half.

Things won't get easier with UAB looming on Saturday, that is a noon El Paso time tip off, and will be shown on CBS Sports Network.