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UTEP Men’s Basketball clipped by WKU, 78-71, in CUSA Championship Game

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (KVIA) - - The No. 5 seed UTEP men’s basketball team was held off by No. 3 seed WKU, 78-71, in the championship contest of the 2024 CUSA Tournament in front of a partisan announced crowd of 4,541 fans inside Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center Saturday evening.

The Miners (18-16) found themselves down by 13 (17-4, 12:48, 1H) less than eight minutes into the contest, with the Toppers (22-11) spurred on by their fans who packed the venue, taking advantage of the relatively close proximity from Bowling Green, Ky., to Huntsville, Ala.

UTEP, as it had done in its victories in both the quarterfinals and semifinals to punch a ticket to the CUSA title tilt for the first time since 2011, dug in and began to fight back. The Miners ripped off 10 straight points to get the deficit to three (17-14, 10:37, 1H), which helped them trail by only four (40-36) at the half.

The Orange and Blue opened the second stanza on an 8-0 run to vault ahead by four (44-40). UTEP eventually extended the margin to seven (51-44, 14:45, 2H). The Miners were still leading by six (53-47) with 13:46 left, but behind tournament MVP Don McHenry (25 points), WKU was able to rally. The Toppers used a 20-4 run to move back in front (67-57, 4:58, 2H). 

As it turned out, that would prove to the sixth and final lead change in a contest that also featured three ties. The Miners refused to quit and kept battling down the stretch, but they could not get closer than seven the rest of the way.

“Congrats to Western Kentucky, they’re obviously a good champion to represent our conference. We wish them the best of luck in the NCAA Tournament,” UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. “Credit to them, they played a good game. (McHenry) is a special player. We couldn’t get him corralled tonight. But I’m really proud of our group. This group has been resilient, not just this week, but all year. It’s a tough, tough group, and they’ve been fun to coach. I’m just really proud. 

“(Our seniors), they got UTEP Basketball back to where it belongs, and that’s playing for championships,” Golding said. “You’ve got to get in these games and in the arena, get in the fight. Then, we’ve got to continue to do it. They’ve left that legacy of getting this program back. They’ve made people proud the last three days to wear UTEP across their chest, not only in the city of El Paso, but our alumni across the country. I’m glad that UTEP got some exposure from these guys and what they did these last three days. It just didn’t go our way tonight. The turnovers obviously got us. We just turned the basketball over, and they were able to get out in transition. Then, we couldn’t score there for that stretch in the second half.”

All-Tournament Team member Zid Powell led the way for the UTEP by tallying 21 points, aided by draining a career-best four 3-pointers. Tae Hardy (11 points, four rebounds) and Otis Frazier III (11 points, seven rebounds) joined him in double figures for scoring. 

Corey Camper Jr. pitched in eight points and five boards while Derick Hamilton (seven points), Trey Horton III (six points), Calvin Solomon (four points, team-high eight boards) and David Terrell Jr. (squad-best four assists) also made contributions off the bench.

UTEP finished at 38.3 percent from the floor (23-60), including a solid 37.5 percent (9-24) from distance. The Miners also took care of business at the charity strip (16-22, 72.7 percent). UTEP finished with 19 turnovers that led to 19 WKU points. 

The Toppers managed to get their league-leading offense going, finishing at 46.6 percent (27-58) from the floor, despite UTEP holding them to 18.8 percent (3-16) from distance. WKU was able to account for 44 points in the paint compared to 28 by the Orange and Blue. 

WKU roared out to the 17-4 lead with their fans in full throttle. UTEP didn’t panic as it started to settle down despite playing in what was akin to a road game setting. 

The approach helped the Orange and Blue register 10 straight points to whittle the deficit down to three (17-14, 10:37, 1H). Frazier III started it by coming up with a steal and dunk after beating the defense down the court. Terrell Jr. then found fellow freshman Horton III, who buried the corner trey. 

The Miners came up with another stop and were off to the races. Terrell Jr. once again set up Horton III from distance, who delivered nothing but net. WKU misfired on another shot and Terrell Jr. dropped it off to Kevin Kalu for a dunk, capping the surge to make it a three-point differential (17-14, 10:37, 1H).

The Toppers struck back with a 12-6 push on the way to extending their advantage out to nine (29-20, 5:56, 1H). Powell got going, though, scoring eight straight for the Miners, including a pair of triples to suddenly cut the deficit down to one (29-28, 4:28, 1H). Camper Jr. then came up with a steal and found Frazier III ahead of the defense for a lay-up to cap off another 10-0 run, allowing the Orange and Blue to take their first lead of the contest (30-29, 3:00, 1H). 

A couple scores from each side knotted the game, 33-33, before WKU utilized a 7-2 run to go out by six (40-34). Two Frazier III free throws brought it to 40-36. UTEP then forced a shot-clock violation to preserve that score heading into halftime. 

The Orange and Blue stormed out with eight in a row over the first 90 seconds of the second half. They got a midrange jumper from Hardy before Powell delivered consecutive 3-pointers to put the Miners up four (44-40, 18:30, 2H). WKU got it to two, on a pair of occasions, including trailing 46-44 with 15:25 to play.

UTEP responded with a 5-0 push, using an And-1 by Hamilton and a mid-range jumper by Hardy. It put the Miners up by seven (51-44, 14:45, 2H), and they still led by six about a minute late. WKU answered with 

The Toppers would answer, though, in a big way. They strung together a 20-4 run to go out by 10 (67-57, 4:59, 2H). The Orange and Blue continued to battle down the stretch but couldn’t close the gap.

The run to the finals was unprecedent for the program. UTEP’s No. 5 seed was the lowest in the 13 appearances that it has now made in a conference tournament championship game. The Miners also took out the No. 1 seed, Sam Houston, 65-63, in the semifinals, their first victory against at top seed at the league tournament since the 1993 WAC Championships. 

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Bea Martinez

UTEP Athletics


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