After a strong weekend sweep last week, showing fans there might be a small space for some hope, it all slipped away Thursday night in Houston.
The 76-70 Rice win snaps a nine game UTEP win streak against the Owls, making Saturday’s game in Denton a must win situation for a berth in the C-USA Tournament.
UTEP built an early first half lead, but a long scoring drought and seven straight Rice points to start the second erased that strong start, and left UTEP playing catch up the entire night.
Najja Hunter had a huge night for the Owls. The Brooklyn native dropped 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting leading three Owls in double figures.
Rice shot 43.9 percent from the field, and hit 10 3-pointers on the evening, while UTEP committed 11 turnovers despite having four score in double figures.
The Miners led 21-13 after a 3-pointer from Omega Harris at the midway point of the first half, but UTEP would go the next six minutes without a bucket, and Rice took a 36-29 halftime lead.
Rice started the second half on an 7-0 run, stretching the lead to 43-29 a minute and some change into the second half. UTEP played catch up the entire second half, cutting the lead down to four at one point late in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.
Omega Harris scored 18 points, Isiah Osborne scored 13 points, and Trey Wade added 10. Paul Thomas scored 12 points. The Miners shot well, going 8-for-17 from long distance, but defensive woes on the road continued in Houston.
UTEP only got to the free throw line eight times, and were out rebounded 42-33. Rice held a 16-8 edge in second chance points. The Miners outscored Rice 41-40 in the second half thanks to the late run, but the first half scoring drought ended up making a comeback nearly impossible as UTEP could not string together stops in the final half.
The Miners need a win against North Texas, or a Rice loss on Saturday to clinch a berth in the C-USA tourney. A UTEP loss and Rice win would tie the Miner and Owls and would force a tie breaker which according to the C-USA will be determined based off the records against the top teams in the conference standings.
UTEP and North Texas tip off at 4 pm Mountain Time Saturday in Denton.