Texas El-Paso didn’t wait until the final game of the season to win the Conference USA title outright. It’s hoping by keeping up the momentum, it can also avoid any stress about receiving an NCAA tournament bid.
The No. 24 Miners look to win their 14th straight when they host Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.
UTEP (23-5, 14-1) broke into the Top 25 this week for the first time since February 1992 and it needed only one win in its final two games to be the lone conference champion. The Miners secured that with an 80-76 win at Marshall on Tuesday.
“It’s ours,” coach Tony Barbee said. “We’re going to enjoy it. How much time that is, I don’t know. We can’t feel comfortable with where we’re at.”
With a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, UTEP has the advantage going into next week as it tries to make things easy on the NCAA tournament selection committee. There is no automatic second bid for Conference USA.
“There’s no other guarantees at this point, so we’ve got business to take care of,” Barbee said.
The Miners will certainly be favorites as they look to win 14 in a row for the first time since 1985-86 and set a new school mark for conference wins. They rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit Tuesday, as Randy Culpepper hit three 3-pointers as part of a 16-4 run to open the second half.
The junior guard finished with 32 points, hitting 7 3-pointers. He’s averaging 28.2 points in the last five games.
“Going into halftime, Coach Barbee told me to keep it up,” Culpepper said. “Once I hit the first couple of 3s, Julyan Stone, our point guard, said he’d keep coming back to me. That’s exactly what happened.”
Led by Culpepper, the Miners have been hot from long range the last two games, shooting 20 of 40. Culpepper, a 38.4-percent shooter from beyond the arc this season, is 11 for 21 over those contests.
Culpepper and UTEP needed double overtime to defeat UAB 74-65 on Jan. 30. The Blazers (23-6, 11-4) were ranked No. 25 at the time but shot only 28.2 percent. The Miners gave up 22 offensive rebounds and had 18 turnovers.
UAB dropped two of three following that loss, but had won four straight before losing 70-65 to Memphis on Wednesday. The Blazers shot 32.3 percent and were 3 of 24 from 3-point range. Elijah Millsap scored 19 points and helped UAB nearly erase a 14-point deficit, but it couldn’t get closer than three in the final two minutes.
“Our guys gave heart tonight, especially in the second half when we made a run,” coach Mike Davis said. “But we’ve had too many games like, too many games where we’re playing from behind. Having to come back all the time against good teams is tough.”
Millsap has reached double figures in each game since going 3 of 15 from the floor for nine points against UTEP. He’s averaging 17.8 points the last four contests.