FRISCO, Tx – UTEP and UTSA have squared off twice this season. In the first game in San Antonio, the Miners couldn’t hold on to a 21-5 lead. In the second game in El Paso, they couldn’t withstand a couple of long scoring droughts.
The end result was a pair of four-point losses – 65-61 at the Convocation Center and 63-59 at the Haskins Center. On Wednesday, on the biggest of stages, the Miners and the Roadrunners will do battle one more time in the first round of the Conference USA Championships presented by Baylor Scott & White Sports Performance Center at The Star in Frisco.
Tip-off is set for 5:30 p.m. MT (6:30 CT), and the game will be streamed on Facebook. Fans can also listen to the English radio broadcast on KOFX 92.3 FM (pregame show starts at 5 MT), or the Spanish broadcast on ESPN Deportes 1650 AM.
In two games versus the Roadrunners, the Miners shot 37.9 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from outside and 57.4 percent from the line. They were also crushed on the glass (-12.0 rebound margin). Improving their offensive efficiency and board work will be crucial on Wednesday night.
“We’ve got to do a couple of things better,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “The game in San Antonio came down to the last shot and we didn’t get a shot off. We turned it over. We were right there. We played well. We had a [16-point] lead early.
“At home, I thought we just didn’t score enough points against their zone. Sixty-something [points] probably is not enough to beat San Antonio. I think 70 is the magic number, or thereabouts.”
For all their struggles this season – they bring an 11-19 mark into the C-USA Tourney – the Miners have won four of their last six and have thrived in close games of late. They won by one point at Charlotte on Feb. 15 (87-86), and by two points over LA Tech at home on Feb. 22 (74-72) and, more recently, at North Texas on Saturday (68-66) in a game that clinched a berth in the C-USA Championships. Playing well at the end of the season and winning tight affairs can certainly be a recipe for success in postseason play.
“We’re coming off probably our most complete game of the season against North Texas, our most convictive game in terms of defending and running and executing our stuff,” Johnson said. “I think our guys are in a good place, we’re all in a good place and ready to go.
“I expect this will be a close game. Both of the previous two have been four-point games, so we’re expecting another tight one. I know they’re going to really execute. Both teams will play extremely hard. UTSA is a tremendous offensive rebounding team, so we’ve got to get better at that area. But it will be a hard, hard fought game, and I think a great college basketball game.”
UTSA (18-13) will look a little different this time around with star freshman and leading scorer Jhivvan Jackson (18.4 ppg) out for the season with a knee injury. The Roadrunners have won two and lost one without him in the lineup. In his absence, junior guard Deon Lyle has stepped up and scored 33 points in the Roadrunners’ 79-60 win at Rice on Saturday. Johnson said UTSA is doing a few things different offensively without Jackson.
“This late in the season, to alter your entire scheme and offense probably isn’t going to happen,” he said. “They’ve changed a few things to get Lyle more shots. So we’ll have to pay special attention to him. I’m sure they’ve added a couple of sets, as we have in getting ready for them.”
The Miners have advanced in the Conference USA Tournament in each of the last eight years and nine of the last 10. As the 12th seed, they’ll have to do so as a decided underdog in 2018. But they have confidence, and that’s a great place to start.
“My initial thought [with UTSA] was when you’ve lost twice in two close games, people say it’s difficult to beat someone three times,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I buy into that. It’s just another opportunity for our team to go prove that we’re better than they are and that we didn’t play particularly well in either game. I give [UTSA] a ton of credit. They are a well-coached, hard-playing team and our guys are ready to go. We’re really eager to get going. I think we’ll have a good crowd here with all the Dallas UTEP alumni. So it should be a really exciting night.”