“You know what’s funny about it, all across college basketball there are teams playing for a lot. There are a lot of stakes involved,” Coach Johnson said. “And this is one of those games where it may not be for the league championship or league lead or anything like that, but there’s a lot at stake…”
The UTEP men’s basketball team, suddenly on a roll with wins in three of its last four games, will take on Rice Thursday in Houston (6 p.m. MT) and North Texas Saturday in Denton (4 p.m. MT) with a berth in the Conference USA Tournament on the line.
The Miners (10-18, 5-11 C-USA) can lock up a spot in next week’s event with a win or Rice loss in this weekend’s games. The Owls (6-23, 3-13 C-USA) are two games back of UTEP with two games remaining, and will host UTSA on Saturday after facing the Miners on Thursday.
Thursday’s game will be streamed on FloSports
The Miners edged LA Tech 74-72 on Thursday, then thumped Southern Miss 73-44 on Saturday in the Haskins Center.
“The last two home games were huge, obviously,” UTEP Interim Coach Phil Johnson said. “We needed to win coming off the Old Dominion game and the disaster out there [on Feb. 17]. That was one part of it. And Senior Night on Saturday was another part of it. Just playing better this time of the year is huge going into the last two games and the Conference USA Tournament. I thought we needed to play well and we did. I was really happy that we won the two games. And those were two teams that beat us pretty good early in the season. So we’ve made some progress since then.”
Thursday’s game isn’t a must-win for the Miners, but they’d certainly like to take care of business and not have to sweat it out on Saturday.
“You know what’s funny about it, all across college basketball there are teams playing for a lot. There are a lot of stakes involved,” Johnson said. “And this is one of those games where it may not be for the league championship or league lead or anything like that, but there’s a lot at stake. I think it will be a great basketball game on Thursday. We have a lot to look forward to, but this game is really important. Obviously we need to take care of this one. It will put us in [the tournament] with a win, and that’s our goal.”
Another strong turnout of UTEP supporters is expected on Thursday at Tudor Fieldhouse, including the family and friends of junior forward Paul Thomas. He hails from Humble, Texas, about 20 miles outside of Space City.
“[The crowd] makes a huge difference,” Johnson said. “I know last year we were in a tight game and pulled away and that arena was full of people chanting ‘UTEP.’ That really helps, especially down the stretch. Paul will bring 20 people by himself.”
Like UTEP, Rice appears to be peaking at the right time. The Owls are coming off a strong performance in their road trip to the state of Florida last week. They topped Florida Atlantic, 79-76, in overtime on Feb. 22 when Ako Adams banked in a three-pointer from just past midcourt. Then, two days later, Rice had FIU on the ropes before the Panthers ended the game with a 12-2 run and stole a 67-64 win.
Junior guard Connor Cashaw leads Rice in scoring (15.8 ppg), rebounding (6.9 rpg), assists (3.3 apg) and steals (1.3 spg). Adams, a sophomore guard, is second on the team in scoring (10.2 ppg) and assists (3.3 apg). Freshman forward Malik Osborne averages 9.0 ppg for the season, but 11.5 ppg in C-USA action.
When the teams last met, it was 2017 and the Miners cruised to an 80-62 victory in the Haskins Center. That was a long time ago, and both teams are better now.
“They’ve had some guys really come through for them,” Johnson said. “When we played them here, really Cashaw was their guy. We tried to take him out of the game at all costs. He ended up getting 17, but they were a hard-earned 17. But since then, they’ve had two or three others emerge as shooters. They’re a different team, and they’re a better team. Any basketball team would hope to be much better now than it was six weeks ago. That’s the case for them, and hopefully that’s the case for us as well.”
Have the Miners reached their peak?
“I hope so,” Johnson said. “We played pretty well this weekend. Can we do it on the road? That my question. We’ve won one game on the road at Charlotte, in a one-point game. It will be a real challenge. Rice is playing a lot better. They took Old Dominion to overtime at home. We’ll see about peaking at the right time. I know we played well this weekend. That was probably the most complete game that we’ve had all year on Saturday.”