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UTEP storms back to take down top-seeded Sam Houston 65-63 and advance to CUSA Championship game

UTEP Athletics

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (KVIA) -- The UTEP men's basketball team roared back from a 14-point second-half deficit (down 46-32, 13:11 to play) on the way to toppling top-seeded Sam Houston, 65-63, inside Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center in the semifinals of the Conference USA Championships Friday.
It marks the first time in program history that the Miners (18-15) have come back to win back-to-back conference tournament games when trailing by double digits. UTEP fought back from 12 down to topple No. 4 seed Liberty, 66-57, on the strength of a game-closing 24-3 run.
This time, however, it came at the expense of the CUSA regular-season champion Bearkats (21-12), who were riding an eight-game winning streak. Sam Houston led by 14 (46-32) with 13:11 to play. UTEP, now winners of five in a row, didn't flinch and began to make its move. The Miners tallied the next 10 points in the tilt to ignite a game-altering 23-4 run over the next nine minutes on the way to staking a five-point cushion (55-50, 4:33, 2H).
UTEP never relinquished the advantage down the stretch, even as Sam Houston trimmed the lead to one twice. The Bearkats had a chance to tie or win the game on the final possession, but Davon Barnes's two-point try in the waning seconds didn't go. Calvin Solomon grabbed the rebound to set off the celebration on the Miner sideline and in the stands for the Orange and Blue faithful in attendance.
The biggest comeback ever for UTEP in a CUSA tournament contest propels the Orange and Blue into the title tilt for the first time since 2011 and third occasion overall (2010, 2011 and 2024) since joining the league in 2005-06. They will be in search of their initial CUSA tournament crown and sixth overall in program history (won WAC tourney in 1984, 1986, 1989, 1990 and 2005).
No. 5 seed UTEP becomes the lowest seed to appear in a CUSA championship final since Marshall (No. 6) in 2017. Furthermore, it's the first time since the 1993 WAC Championships (W, 85-80, OT vs. Utah) that the Miners knocked off the top seed at the league tourney.
Awaiting them will be third-seeded WKU (21-11), which won its first two games at the tournament by a combined 51 points. The Toppers drilled No. 6 seed NM State, 89-69, on March 14 before crushing No. 7 seed Middle Tennessee, 85-54, in the semifinals on March 15.
UTEP and WKU will square off in the nationally-televised contest (CBS Sports Network) at 6:30 p.m. MT/7:30 p.m. CT. 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.
"First of all, I've got a ton of respect for Sam Houston," UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. "Coach Mudge, rightfully so, was the (CUSA) Coach of the Year. He's done a terrific job with that team. I'm proud of our guys. This has been a resilient group all year, led by the guy (Tae Hardy) to the left of me. He's been a heck of a leader for us. Just the toughness and resilience of this group. To be down 14 against a really good team like Sam Houston and to be able to come back (was incredible).
"I'm really, really proud of our group. We're deserving of this, and I'm excited to compete with them tomorrow night," Golding said. "Sam Houston is not going to beat themselves. They're old, they're mature and they've been together for a long time. You've got to go beat them and make plays."
Corey Camper Jr. (19 points) and Tae Hardy (18 points) both hit double digits in scoring to set the tone on offense, but they had plenty of help. Derick Hamilton provided big minutes off the bench with nine points and a career-high seven boards in 13 action-packed minutes en route to finishing with a team-best +15. Zid Powell pitched in eight points and matched Hamilton with seven boards while also coming up with a UTEP league-tournament record-tying five steals. Trey Horton III notched five points, including a huge 3-pointer and a tip-in during the rally.
UTEP finished at 21-48 (43.8 percent) from the floor despite going 4-14 (28.6 percent) on 3-pointers. The Miners were 19-28 (67.9 percent) from the free-throw line but took care of business late by going 6-8 down the stretch. Another big difference in the game was the Orange and Blue winning the battle of the boards (36-33) against the top rebounding team in the conference. UTEP fought for 11 offensive rebounds, including four from Hamilton, that it was able to convert into 11 crucial second-chance points. The Miners had 17 giveaways, but only five of those were in the second half.
UTEP forced Sam Houston into committing 15 turnovers while recording seven of its 12 steals during the final 20 minutes. The Bearkats finished at 41.2 percent (21-50) from the floor, including just 2-10 (20.0 percent) from 3-point range. Another huge factor was the top-ranked free-throw shooting team in the league struggling with a readout of 55.9 percent (19-34) at the charity stripe. That included a paltry 11-21 in the second half.
Both teams had empty trips early on before a Sam Houston free throw got it on the board. UTEP responded with a 7-2 push to grab an early edge. Hardy started things off by coming up with a steal and then knocking down a triple before the Bearkats could set up their defense. Camper Jr. and Powell followed with lay-ups to wrap up the mini run.
It was a three-point UTEP edge (11-8) after a score from the Bearkats, but the Miners answered quickly. Camper Jr. filled up a 3-pointer on the find by Powell, who had backed down his defender before kicking it out. That was followed by a stop and a transition lay-up from David Terrell Jr. to extend the margin to eight (16-8, 12:21, 1H) and prompt a timeout by Sam Houston.
The Bearkats regrouped and struck back in the form of an 10-1 surge to go back ahead by one (18-17, 6:03, 1H). The run was aided by UTEP making six turnovers during the stretch. Hamilton halted a six-minute scoring drought by the Orange and Blue with a free throw to tie the tilt. The Miners then got a steal and Hardy was fouled in transition. He sank both free throws to put them back up by a pair (20-18, 5:25, 1H). Sam Houston immediately ripped off five in a row to lead by three (23-20, 4:37, 1H).
The Orange and Blue tallied the next three points, with an easy putback for Hamilton and a charity stripe toss by Otis Frazier III, as the game started to go back-and-forth. Sam Houston nudged out back by four (29-25) with roughly two minutes in the frame. The differential was six (33-27) in favor of the Bearkats heading into the locker room.
Sam Houston started the second half with six straight points to suddenly put the Miners down by 11 (38-27, 18:16, 2H) before a driving lay-up by Camper Jr halted that sequence. After Hardy was tagged for his fourth foul in the affair on the next trip, the Bearkats misfired on a pair of free throws. Camper Jr. then split through the defense to get the deficit to single digits with a floater.
The Bearkats countered to eventually extend their advantage to 14 (46-32, 13:11 2H), as the Orange and Blue dealt with foul trouble and were seemingly out of sorts. Rather than sulk, UTEP regrouped and began to rally. The Miners struck back with a 14-1 run, including 10 straight, on the way to getting within one (47-46, 9:00, 2H) as they held the Bearkats without a field goal for more than six minutes
Hamilton started it with an offensive putback. Horton III curled off a screen to drain a straightaway 3-pointer before Camper Jr. attacked the rim to bank home a shot. The Miners then came up with a steal and score, with Hardy finishing an And-1 to cut the differential to four (46-42, 10:19, 2H). A Bearkats' free throw stopped the 10-0 push, but UTEP refused to let its foot off the gas.
Even as Sam Houston finally managed to tally the next couple of points to go back up by four (50-46, 7:57, 2H), the Miners didn't blink. An athletic tip-in by Horton III made it a two-point tilt, and it started a run of nine straight.
Hamilton then had a putback to tie it up before Camper Jr. banged home a trey on a kickout by Hamilton to give UTEP the lead (53-50) for the first time since it was 20-18. Hardy used a beautiful reverse lay-up to wrap up the aforementioned 23-4 run.
Sam Houston tried to recover, but UTEP refused to give up the lead even as Hardy fouled out with three minutes to play. A big part of that was the Orange and Blue sinking 6-8 at the line late.
The Miners will now try to cap their magical run in the tournament and punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 when they secured an at-large bid. UTEP split the season series with WKU, holding on for a 93-87 win in El Paso on Jan. 20 while falling to the Toppers on the road, 90-80, on Feb. 15. The 93 points marked a season high for UTEP.

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Bea Martinez

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