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UTEP Men’s basketball roars Liberty behind game-closing 24-3 run to advance to CUSA Semifinals, 66-57

UTEP Athletics

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (KVIA) -- Trailing by 12 (54-42) with 10:33 to play in the contest, the UTEP men’s basketball team rattled off a game-closing 24-3 surge to rally past Liberty, 66-57, inside Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA Championships Thursday.

It marks the biggest comeback for the Miners at the CUSA Tournament since joining the league in 2005-06. They previously rallied back from eight points on three different occasions in an eventual 67-62 OT victory against Houston on March 7, 2012. Furthermore, it is the largest rally this year for the Orange and Blue. UTEP fought back from seven-point deficits to win against both Wyoming (Dec. 21) and Cal (Nov. 20)

The fifth-seeded Miners (17-15), winners of four in a row, march into the semifinals of the league’s pinnacle event for the first time since 2017 where they will challenge top-seed and CUSA regular-season champion Sam Houston (21-11) at 10:30 a.m. MT/11:30 a.m. CT Friday. The Bearkats are red hot, having won eight straight. That included blasting No. 9 seed FIU, 78-59, in the quarterfinals for the CUSA Tournament on March 13.

The game will be broadcast nationally on CBS Sports Network. It will also air on "The Home of UTEP Basketball" 600 ESPN El Paso and the UTEP Miners App with Jon Teicher (43rd year) and Steve Yellen(21st year) on the call.

UTEP’s defense locked up Liberty late, holding it to three points over the final 10:33 on 1-9 shooting. The Miners also harassed the Flames into committing six of their 15 turnovers in the contest during that sequence to help fuel the rally. Overall, Liberty finished at 44.0 percent (22-50) from the floor, including 45.0 percent (9-20) on 3-point tosses. The Flames, however, were just 2-7 from distance over the final 20 minutes.

Zid Powell (13 points), 2024 CUSA Freshman of the Year David Terrell Jr. (12 points), All-CUSA Second-Team honoree Tae Hardy (11 points) and Derick Hamilton (10 points) all reached double figures in scoring to lead the way offensively for UTEP. Powell also paced the team in rebounds (seven) and assists (four) to become the first Miner to lead the team in points, boards and helpers since Shamar Givance did so at FIU on Feb. 23, 2023.

Camper Jr. added seven points while Kevin Kalu (five points, three boards) and Otis Frazier III (four points, five rebounds) made impacts as well. Calvin Solomon provided quality minutes off the bench with two points, three rebounds and a pair of steals on the way to a +14 in the contest, which trailed only Terrell Jr.’s (+19) in the category. Overall, UTEP recorded 11 steals in the contest to secure its 21st game this year with 10 or more thefts.

The Miners connected on 47.9 percent (23-48) from the floor, despite finishing 1-9 (11.1) from beyond-the-arc. They compensated for it by winning the boards (33-26) and connecting on 19-22 at the charity stripe for a season-high readout of 86.4 percent at the line.

Liberty was led by Kaden Metheny’s 20 points, aided by six triples. Kyle Rode (10 points) and Joseph Venzant (10 points) also reached double digits for the Flames.

“It was a back-and-forth game. They made a run in the second half to go up 12, and we made an adjustment to go small,” UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. “Our guys bought in. We got some steals and turnovers quickly, got the lead down to six (as part of the 24-3 run). I’m just really proud of our guys for handling adversity. I’m proud of the toughness. This team has been resilient all year. They’ve been tough all year. I’m just really, really proud that they were able to show that tonight.”

Camper Jr. got the Miners on the board first by burying a triple before the Flames answered with a 9-0 run that was wrapped around the media break. Camper Jr. ended the surge with a lay-up after he beat the defense down the court and Hardy found him all alone. That was followed by an easy score from Kalu on a touch pass from Solomon. Two Hamilton free threes put the finishing touches on a mini 6-0 push as UTEP pulled even, 9-9 (12:35, 1H).

After an old-fashioned 3-point play from Liberty, consecutive baskets by Hamilton put the Orange and Blue back in front by one (13-12, 10:51, 1H). The first bucket came after he outworked the defenders to snag an offensive board and go back up with it.

UTEP attacked the hoop on the next couple of possessions, resulting in free throws by Terrell Jr. and Powell to stretch the differential to five (17-12, 7:54, 1H) and make the Miner run eight straight. Out of the media break, a lob from Powell found Frazier III set up the alley-oop and cap a 10-0 surge.

The Flames finally got things going at the other end of the court, heating up from distance thanks to Metheny. Liberty’s next four baskets came from beyond-the-arc, allowing it to pull back in front by one. On the ensuing possession, Hardy faded away for the score over a taller defender. It started a mini 6-0 push, which Terrell Jr. ended with a transition lay-up. The Flames struck back with two more triples, but UTEP still carried a lead (31-30) into the locker room.

Liberty bolted out with a 9-3 sequence to start the second stanza, putting the Miners down five (39-34,17:25, 2H) and forcing Golding to call timeout. The Miners set up Hardy on the block to back down the smaller guard out of the break. He was fouled and hit both free throws to stop the mini run and make it a one-possession affair (39-36, 16:46, 2H). Powell banked home a shot to cut the deficit to one before Liberty scored on its next two trips to reinstate a five-point advantage (43-38, 15:16, 2H).

The Flames eventually nudged it to 12 (54-42, 10:33, 2H), but the Miners would control the contest from that point on. It was a 10-point deficit (55-45, 9:24, 2H) before UTEP peeled off six straight points. Powell started things with a nifty tip-in off a miss. The Miners then forced consecutive turnovers, which led to transition lay-ups for Terrell Jr. to whittle the Flames’ lead down to four (54-50, 7:17, 2H) at the media break.

After UTEP forced another turnover, Hardy was fouled. He hit 1-2, bringing the Miners within three (54-51,6:28, 2H). A sensational spin move from Hardy on the next trip extended the run to 11-0 and made it a one-point game (54-53, 5:28, 2H). Liberty got a lay-up to temporarily stop the run and go back up by three, but Terrell Jr. answered immediately with a driving lay-up that hung on the rim before dropping through.

Solomon used good positioning to take a charge and provide another stop on Liberty’s next offensive possession. The Miners finally pulled ahead for the first time since it was 34-33 after two free throws by Powell. The Orange and Blue then got a turnaround score in the post by Camper Jr., allowing them to be up by three (59-56) with just under two minutes to play.

The Miners came up with another key stop and were rewarded the ball after a review. Powell was fouled instantly, and he nailed both to move the differential to five (61-56, 34 seconds). UTEP fouled as Liberty raced up the court, but the Flames hit just 1-2 to maintain a four-point cushion (61-57, 29 seconds). Powell split a pair of free throws before forcing a turnover by Liberty to get possession back with 23 ticks on the clock.

Horton III, who had taken 12 free throws all year, hit a pair after a foul to stretch to lead to seven and seal Liberty’s fate. A powerful slam by Solomon as time was winding down put the icing on the cake.

UTEP will now have the very quick turnaround, with the Miners vying to knock off the No. 1 seed Sam Houston. The Bearkats claimed both contests during the regular season. They held off a late rally attempt to slip past UTEP, 60-56, on Jan. 27. UTEP was clipped by Sam Houston, 65-54, on Feb. 24, but it has won four straight since.

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Bea Martinez

UTEP Athletics


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