The UTEP Miners will open the 57th Annual WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational against Norfolk State on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Haskins Center.
Joining UTEP (4-5) and Norfolk State (4-8) in the tournament are Wyoming (3-7) and East Tennessee State (8-4), who will square off at 5 p.m. on Friday. The consolation game is on Saturday at 5, with the championship to follow at 7.
“[Norfolk State] can really push the ball, score points and play transition defense. They have a couple guys who can make shots. Their older players, [Nic] Thomas and [Derrik] Jamerson can really shoot the ball,” UTEP first-year head coach Rodney Terry said.
Following Sunday’s victory over UC Riverside, Terry had four days to prepare his young squad for their first tournament experience of the season.
“We’ll take it minute-by-minute and really, as a four-minute game by four-minute game,” Terry said. “We really try to chart how we’re doing every four minutes and you have to do that for 40 minutes.”
The Miners and Spartans will face each other for the third time overall – all in the Sun Bowl Tournament.
UTEP last faced Norfolk State in the 54th edition of the holiday event, as the Spartans downed the Miners, 85-76, on Dec. 21, 2015. In their first meeting, the Miners defeated Norfolk State, 93-56, on Dec. 28, 2009 in a first round game in the Sun Bowl Invitational.
The Miners have won 31 Sun Bowl Tournament titles, but not since 2014 when they defeated Kent State, 78-75, to claim the championship on December 22.
The Miners are coming off a 68-56 victory over UC Riverside on Dec. 16 in which UTEP’s leading scorer Evan Gilyard (18.0 ppg) did not play. It marked the third time this season that the Miners allowed less than 60 points.
The UTEP defense has tightened up, as it’s yielding 60 points per game over the last four contests after giving up 76 points on average in the first five games of the season. The Miners rank fifth in Conference USA in field goal percentage defense (.422).
The UTEP freshmen have impressed thus far as Efe Odigie has led the way, posting his fourth double-double on a career-high 24 points with 11 rebounds versus UCR. Odigie added a career-best three steals in 29 minutes of action. Odigie shot 9-of-15 from the field, including an impressive 6-for-7 effort from the charity stripe.
Odigie leads the Miners and ranks second in C-USA at 9.0 rebounds per game, and ranks second on the squad in points per contest (15.7). Odigie has been special as he’s the first UTEP freshman to open a career with nine consecutive double-digit scoring performances.
Fellow freshmen Jordan Lathon and Nigel Hawkins put up solid numbers on Sunday against the Highlanders. Lathon scored 14 points, his third consecutive double-digit performance, while upping his season average to over 10 points per contest.
Lathon also tallied three steals for the second time this season, and has 11 takeaways over the last five contests. Hawkins finished with nine points and three rebounds. Hawkins shot 5-of-6 from the free throw line and is shooting over 72 percent (21-29) from the line on the season.
Sophomore Kobe Magee dished out a season-high seven assists against UCR in 23 minutes of action. Magee also hit a big three-point bucket with just over three minutes remaining in the ball game, putting his team up 59-53. Magee’s trey was part of a 15-6 run to end the game that lifted the Miners over the Highlanders.
Ountae Campbell, a junior transfer who became eligible prior to the Nov. 28 game against NM State, played a season-high 36 minutes. Campbell scored a season-high seven points and connected on a three pointer that started the late run for the Miners when the score was 53-50. Paul Thomas hit shots down the stretch, finishing with nine points and six rebounds, along with three assists.
Norfolk State opened the season with a 63-44 loss at no. 18 Michigan on Nov. 6 and is on a three-game losing skid after a 94-89 double overtime win against Hampton. The Spartans fell at Kent State (78-76), at Rider (81-71) and most recently on Dec. 16 at Loyola Chicago (80-49).
Redshirt junior Thomas leads the team at 14.9 points per game, while 6-6 redshirt senior forward Jordan Butler paces the squad at 5.4 rebounds per game. Alex Long, a 6-8 senior forward, ranks second in points per game (9.5) and rebounds per contest (4.3).