Top-seeded UTEP had little trouble winning its opener of the Conference USA tournament. Its next contest might not be so easy.
Looking to extend their winning streak to 16 games, the 25th-ranked Miners face a quick turnaround and tournament host Tulsa in Friday afternoon’s semifinal contest.
Coming off its first outright conference title since 1987, UTEP (25-5) held a 28-point halftime lead and rolled to a 76-54 win over ninth-seeded Central Florida in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
The only one of the tournament’s top four seeds to reach the semifinals, the Miners face fifth-seeded Tulsa (23-10) in an expected hostile environment some 16 hours after their most recent victory. As the tournament host, Tulsa was able to pick its quarterfinal time slot, and beat fourth-ranked Marshall 80-64 in the first game of Thursday’s night session at the city’s downtown BOK Center. That left UTEP to play in the final contest of the evening.
“No other tournament in the country is doing that,” said Miners coach Tony Barbee, whose team doesn’t have a significant non-conference victory this season and isn’t guaranteed to receive an at-large NCAA tournament bid if it doesn’t win this event and earn the conference’s automatic bid. “But it is what it is. You’ve got to live with it.”
UTEP, however, averaged 75.5 points and shot 49.5 percent while sweeping two games against Tulsa this season after losing the previous four in the series. The Golden Hurricane beat the Miners 64-62 in overtime in the 2008 C-USA semifinals.
“We’ve had some difficult matchups with them, including the ones this year. They weren’t easy games,” Barbee said. “A great defensive team. (Coach) Doug (Wojcik) does a great job. I expect it to be another fantastic game.”
UTEP star Randy Culpepper scored 29 points in a 78-70 win at Tulsa’s campus arena on Feb. 20, and finished with 10 in just 22 minutes of Thursday’s blowout. Derrick Caracter had 16 points at Tulsa this season and 12 with 12 rebounds in a 73-59 home win over the Hurricane on Feb. 6.
The 6-foot-9 Caracter, the team’s second-leading scorer with 13.8 points per game and top rebounder with 8.1 per game, will likely go head-to-head against Tulsa’s star 7-footer Jerome Jordan, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds against Marshall.
Jordan is averaging 16.6 points and 9.4 boards in his last 17 games, and 20.5 with 11.5 rebounds in his last four against UTEP.
Ben Uzoh added 18 points Thursday for Tulsa, which has won its first two games of the tournament after losing five of seven to conclude the regular season.
“I’m just really happy for these guys,” said Wojcik, whose team shot 29 of 58 from the field and erased a five-point halftime lead Thursday to reach the semifinals for the second consecutive season. “We’ve had a lot of doubters and they’ve really come through and really produced over the last two days.”
Tulsa, 11-4 in the tournament, looks to snap a 17-game losing streak against Top 25 opponents since beating then-No. 16 Dayton 84-71 on March 20, 2003.
The winner of this contest will face either Houston or Southern Mississippi in Saturday morning’s championship game.