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UTEP Basketball: Finish Strong

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Its time to reverse some recent late February, early March history.

"Now we can move forward." Those were the words uttered by former Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky after UTEP became the 12th and final member to join C-USA during the vast realignment of 2005.

While the hiring of football coach Mike Price did help UTEP look more attractive over other candidates, there is no doubt the proud basketball tradition was the main selling point.

After 36 years as a member of the Western Athletic Conference, UTEP packed their luggage and left with 664 victories, eight regular season conference titles, and five conference tournament championships. When UTEP wasn't winning conference titles they were competing for them as they finished in the top four in the conference standings in 23 different seasons.

It wasn't the WAC of today that includes teams such as Grand Canyon, CSU-Bakersfield, Utah Valley, that piece of land in Las Cruces, and UMKC?

UTEP competed against national powerhouses Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, and Colorado State.

In ten full years as a C-USA member, UTEP has not been able to duplicate the same success they had in the WAC. Although they have pulled their own weight and remained a contender. Six times they have finished in the top four and only twice have had a losing record.

With only one C-USA trophy, the fan base yearns for more, a lot more.

With a 0-2 record in the C-USA tournament championship game, UTEP has not received an automatic bid since 2005, their last year in the WAC.

It seems that every year UTEP has games with big leads and instead of pressing the gas to finish the race, they slow down to let the other team back in. It also seems the entire season goes the same way. UTEP builds up a nice win-loss record, and then lose to teams it has no business losing to.

This season it's a different kind of game. Instead of having a 19-point lead, Floyd and company are making a run at the big comeback. Similar to those thrilling comebacks over Marshall and Western Kentucky, UTEP is on a mission to win out and come from behind record wise.

A little over a month ago UTEP was in the midst of a 1-6 stretch that includes losses to the two bottom teams in the conference. The season was seemingly headed straight to the record books as one of the worst ever.

But then a spark went off when Dominic Artis hit the three-pointer that started the 21-5 run to beat Marshall. While mathematically UTEP is still alive for the regular season title, the more realistic goal should be to finish in the top four.

This two game home stand has tremendous implications toward a top four finish. La Tech sits 1.5 games ahead of UTEP, a victory at the Don and UTEP will be right behind waiting for a slip-up. With five of the final six games on the road for La Tech, there is a good chance they stumble.

First up the Miners will have the opportunity to even the score with Southern Miss. Two seasons ago towards the end of the season, a 10-2 UTEP squad met a 9-3 USM team. The Golden Eagles won by 11 and ended the season with a share of the C-USA regular-season title. UTEP's 12-4 record was one game shy of a five-way tie for first place. During the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament in El Paso, USM defeated UTEP 64-56.

Last season the Miners lost the regular season title during the La Tech/Southern Miss road trip. Both the Miners and the Bulldogs entered the contest at 11-3. La Tech would go on to embarrass the Miners on National TV en route to their second consecutive C-USA title. UTEP settled for a 2nd fiddle once again.

With that in mind while a C-USA title is not at stake this time, a top four and hot finish are.

In this one bid league, that is more important. Since the realignment of 2005, no school other than Memphis has finished as the #1 seed and gone on to win the conference tourney.

UTEP controls their own destiny to a top four finish. They play both opponents ahead of them in the standings in La Tech and at ODU, and for good measure even Charlotte is still alive for a top four finish.

Recent history has shown that UTEP is not good at winning these "playoff" type of games. It's a different kind of season the Miners are playing catch up in the standings as opposed to holding a lead.

Are we bound to see more of the same or will this UTEP team finish strong?