For just the second time in 15 years, UTEP and NM State will square off after Christmas when the Battle of I-10 shifts to the Pan American Center in Las Cruces on Friday. Tip-off is at 7 p.m.
The Aggies (12-2) handled the Miners (2-9) with relative ease on Dec. 13 in El Paso. They maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half in an eventual 79-68 triumph. Ian Baker led NMSU with 20 points, and Jemarrio Jones added a double-double off the bench with 18 points and 13 rebounds.
“The Aggies have got a heck of a club this year,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “They have proven that. They have won on the road. They have won at home. They are playing with a lot of confidence. They appear to have just about everything. They have really nice inside players and terrific guards. They are playing well together, playing with each other. They sure gave us a lot of problems here. It will be a tough one over there. We’re going to have to go over there with a lot of spirit, a lot of enthusiasm, we’re going to have to play together and make some shots.”
UTEP will be coming off an eight-day break between games, trying to end an eight-game losing streak against an Aggie squad that has won 10 in a row.
“Everybody has had a break,” Floyd said. “They have had a break, we have had a break. I know that we probably needed it. We regrouped, we came back energized. Our guys have practiced well for a couple of days. We had one little setback with Jake Flaggert breaking his nose in the Irvine game. It’s our third broken nose of the year [Ivan Venegas and Matt Willms are the others]. We’ll hope that he’s able to play through that. He has probably led the nation in charges attempted. He’s always on the floor, always picking himself up off the floor, he’s a tough kid and we’re sure that he’ll try to play over there.”
In the first meeting between the squads, Omega Harris led the Miners with 18 points while Dominic Artis scored 15. Artis leads UTEP in rebounding (6.5 rpg), assists (7.5 apg), steals (2.4 spg) and minutes (36.4 mpg) and has firmly established himself as the team leader.
“You like that,” Floyd said. “As a senior he should, and as a point guard he should. They are the guys that should take responsibility in losses and give credit to others in wins. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair. That’s the way NFL quarterbacks do it. But he’s a good kid, he’s trying hard. I have been really pleased with his makeup, who he is every day when he comes in to work, and I think he’s playing good basketball.”
Floyd is hopeful that Matt Willms will be able to put up more consistent numbers moving forward as the Miners round out their non-conference slate before diving into Conference USA action on Sunday.
“Matt is practicing throughout the entire practice now for the first time,” he said. “We did that for two days prior to the [Sun Bowl] tournament and I thought it helped him. We’re just at a point where we’ve got to go one way or the other. He seems to have been able to withstand the rigors of two hard practices since we got back, and I trust that he’s going to be able to go over there and play maybe at a higher level than what he played earlier in the season.”
The Miners will have their hands full on Friday. The Aggies shot 54.9 percent from the field in the first matchup, outrebounded the Miners 38-28 and won by 11 despite turning it over 20 times.
“Their guards is where you start,” Floyd said. “[Braxton] Huggins and [Ian] Baker are outstanding. That’s not all they have. Their inside guys, [Eli] Chuha is doing a really nice job for them in his first year as a starter. They gave us problems with their length and size and their athleticism. I thought they were better than us in all areas the first time we played.”
The Miners are beginning a challenging stretch of four consecutive road games.
“We’re just excited to get back and go play again,” Floyd said. “When you get beat, it’s no fun. You don’t necessarily enjoy the practices that follow because they are generally about correcting things that you’re not doing well. So guys like to compete, they like to get out and play, and hopefully we’ll play with some spirit.”