A two-month undefeated run helped UTEP win the Conference USA regular-season title, but its players still believe the team can play even better.
The top-seeded and 25th-ranked Miners have a chance to prove that when they face Central Florida in the quarterfinals of the league tournament Thursday night in Tulsa.
After suffering a 10-point loss at Houston on Jan. 13, UTEP (24-5) won its final 14 games to claim the C-USA championship. It was the program’s first outright league title since winning the 1986-87 Western Athletic Conference crown, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy some members of the team.
“I’m still not where I want this team to be,” said junior Derrick Caracter, who’s averaging 14.3 points and a team-leading 8.4 rebounds.
Maybe that’s because UTEP is 3-4 in the league tournament during its four seasons as a C-USA member. The Miners won five WAC tournament titles, the most recent in 2005, but they’ve made it past their first game just twice since joining C-USA.
UTEP lost in overtime to Houston in its first tournament game last season after reaching the semifinals in 2008. Memphis has won the last four titles, and the second-seeded Tigers could meet UTEP in Saturday’s championship contest.
However, the Miners are playing with confidence, especially defensively as they’ve held opponents to 62.2 points per game and 37.9 percent shooting during their winning streak.
UTEP closed the regular season with a 52-50 win over UAB on Saturday to secure the league title. Caracter scored the final six points, including a game-winning dunk with 1 second left.
“We’ve won a bunch like this down the stretch,” said Tony Barbee, the C-USA coach of the year. “We need games like this to challenge us going into the C-USA Tournament.”
The Miners hope they don’t find themselves seriously challenged in their opener against ninth-seeded Central Florida (15-16), a 69-53 first-round winner over SMU on Wednesday.
UTEP guard Randy Culpepper scored 39 points while shooting 13 of 20 from the field in the Miners’ 96-59 road rout of the Knights in the teams’ only meeting Jan. 23. He went 9 of 15 from 3-point range in that contest.
Culpepper was third in the conference averaging 18.1 points on the season, and he has averaged 25.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting in three career games against Central Florida.
Taylor Young scored 15 points, Isaac Sosa 14 and A.J. Tyler 12 as the Knights shot 54.2 percent against SMU to snap a three-game tournament losing streak. The victory was Central Florida’s second-ever C-USA tournament win.
“All I know is if you lose you are done,” Central Florida freshman Keith Clanton told the school’s official Web site. “We’ll play hard and try to keep that from happening.”
Tyler (10.4 points per game) and Sosa (10.3 ppg) are the Knights’ top two scorers, but they have combined for 17 total points while each playing two games against the Miners. Tyler had 12 versus UTEP in January.
Central Florida, facing UTEP for the first time in a conference tournament, has lost 12 in a row against Top 25 opponents since beating then-No. 25 Charlotte 82-64 on Dec. 12, 2002.