UTEP (14-5) at UAB (18-2)

  • Game info: 8:00 pm EST Sat Jan 30, 2010
Preview | Box Score | Recap

Its ability to win close games is a major reason Alabama-Birmingham is undefeated in January and alone atop the Conference USA standings.

Trying for an eighth consecutive victory, the 25th-ranked Blazers could be in for another tight contest Saturday night when they host a UTEP team looking to move into a tie for the league lead with a fifth straight win.

Winners of 17 of the last 18, UAB (18-2, 6-0) is one of the hottest teams in the nation and the surprise C-USA frontrunner through the first month of league play.

“It’s important to be on top at any time,” said coach Mike Davis, whose team has won seven in a row since losing 72-63 at Virginia on Dec. 30.

Getting there hasn’t always been easy. UAB is 6-0 in contests decided by five points or fewer, with three of those victories coming in league play. The Blazers have an average victory margin of 4.6 points during their current seven-game winning stretch.

“We know we can win games that are real tight,” said senior Elijah Millsap, the team leader with 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds. “We know we can come back. We feel comfortable. We never get rattled.”

The Blazers proved that in their last contest. They blew a 16-point lead but rallied by making 13 straight free throws to help hand Tulsa its first C-USA loss Tuesday, 65-55.

Millsap recorded his league-leading 11th double-double with 19 points and 12 boards Wednesday. George Drake made all 10 of his free-throw attempts and finished with 17 points as UAB went 23 of 28 from the line.

Defense continues to pace UAB, which is allowing a league-low 59.2 points per contest on the season.

UAB might need another solid performance at the free-throw line and on the defensive end Saturday with first place on the line once again. None of the Blazers’ five all-time victories over UTEP have come by more than nine points.

“Every game we play is a big game,” Davis told the school’s official Web site. “UTEP is probably is the most talented team in our league. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s one we look forward to.”

UTEP (14-5, 5-1), in a three-way tie for second in the conference, has won four in a row since a 75-65 loss at Houston on Jan. 13. The Miners have won both their road games since that defeat, highlighted by a 72-67 victory at Memphis that snapped the Tigers’ 64-game C-USA winning streak.

Though UTEP snapped a four-game losing streak to UAB with a 70-52 home win March 4, securing its first three-game conference road winning streak in five years won’t be easy.

The Miners are 0-3 all-time at Bartow Arena, where the Blazers have won 11 in a row and are 37-2 - losing only to Memphis - since the beginning of the 2007-08 season. UTEP also has lost 15 straight games against ranked opponents since beating then-No. 20 Fresno State 80-61 on Feb. 17, 2001.

“It’s a big game because it’s against a team that’s ahead of us in the standings,” Miners coach Tony Barbee told the school’s official Web site.

Averaging 77.9 points per game, UTEP could get a boost with 6-foot-9 senior Derrick Caracter (13.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) expected to be back after missing Wednesday’s 84-71 win over Tulane with tendinitis in his knee.

UTEP junior guard Randy Culpepper is averaging a team-leading 17.2 points this season and 23.0 on 53.3 percent shooting in two career games at UAB.

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