It’s been two months since UTEP lost a game. Now, standing in the way of the school’s first Conference USA tournament title is the last team to beat it.
Trying to extend their winning streak to 17 games, the top-seeded and 25th-ranked Miners look to avenge their only conference loss as they face No. 7 seed Houston in Saturday morning’s championship game in Tulsa.
Exactly two months to the day UTEP (26-5) lost 75-65 at Houston on Jan. 13, the teams square off with each looking for its first C-USA tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Miners have been one of the nation’s hottest teams since that defeat, posting the second-longest winning streak in school history that included a 65-58 home over the Cougars (18-15) on Feb. 3.
UTEP is in the finals for the first time since joining the league in 2005-06, and looking for its first conference tournament championship since 2005 in its final year as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
“This is a great season we’re having right now,” said star Randy Culpepper, who’s averaging a team-leading 17.9 points, but has totaled 18 against Houston in the two games. “Just to win the championship it would feel good, especially we’ll feel good about ourselves going into the NCAA Tournament.”
UTEP was feeling good after shooting 51.9 percent in a 75-61 win over tournament host Tulsa in Thursday’s semifinals. A day after shooting 56.0 percent in a 22-point quarterfinal rout over Central Florida, Miners coach Tony Barbee was more impressed by his team’s defense in the two games.
The Miners have held their two tournament opponents to 37.1 percent shooting while forcing 33 turnovers.
“My team has been special all year long and it’s really clicked for us defensively,” Barbee said. “I’ve been preaching it since I’ve been at UTEP and these guys have finally grown to understand what defense and toughness can do for a team.”
Though Houston shot 38.9 percent in the two games against UTEP, the Miners have never been able to contain conference scoring leader Aubrey Coleman. The senior guard is averaging 25.9 points—tops in Division I—and 23.3 with 9.2 rebounds in four career games against the Miners.
“He’s a guy that’s always given us problems,” Barbee said of Coleman, who’s averaged 25.6 points in three tournament games this week. “He’s capable of going for 50 points. Anytime you face a team like that it’s very dangerous.”
Though the Cougars certainly pose a threat to UTEP, fatigue may be an issue as they look to become the fourth team in tournament history to win four games in four games after beating sixth-seed Southern Mississippi 74-66 on Friday.
Coleman, who had 27 points in the semifinals, isn’t worried, though.
“Our team is full of workhorses,” he said. “We happen to just be really playing hard and we go over what we need to go over and then we just get out of the gym. Our legs are still under us. No excuses. We’re here now. No excuses.”
Houston, which lost to Memphis in the 2007 C-USA title game, beat then-No. 25 Oklahoma 100-93 at the Great Alaska Shootout in its only previous game against a ranked opponent this season.