What a difference a couple of games makes. UTEP, pushing toward a top 4 seeding for the upcoming Conference USA tournament after an impressive four-game win stretch, now finds itself sitting alone in eighth after successive losses; the latest, a 68-61 disappointment Wednesday to Rice in the Miners' final home game of the regular season. Saturday's loss at fourth-place Central Florida knocked UTEP (7-8 C-USA record, 14-15 overall) out of the running for a first-round bye at the Tourney, set to begin Mar. 7 at Memphis' Fed Ex Forum.
Gabriel McCulley led the losing cause Wednesday, scoring 17 points off the bench on perfect 6-of-6 shooting over 24 minutes. Sophomore sixth man John Bohannon added 13 points in the post and a team-high 9 rebounds. Freshman Julian Washburn, who uncharacteristically came off the bench on a night where head coach Tim Floyd started two practice players in a three-freshman opening line-up, finished with 12 points in 34 minutes. Arsalan Kazemi and Connor Frizzelle scored 12 points apiece to lead four Owls into double figures.
UTEP finishes its C-USA regular season Saturday at last-place Southern Methodist (3-12, 12-18), losers of 5-of-6 games.
Bohannon led UTEP to a 70-64 overtime win last month, hitting all seven of his shots from the field along with 6-of-6 free throws. And the Miners' backcourt held SMU leading scorer Robert Nyakundi (15 ppg, 43% 3-pointers) to a pedestrian 8 points in defeat. Six-foot-six freshman Jalen Jones (8 pts, 3.3 reb.) picked up the slack with a team-best 12 points to lead 5-10 sophomore point guard Jeremiah Samarripas' (6.9 pts, 4.3 assists) Mustang attack.
--Gabriel McCulley lived up to Wednesday's Senior Night billing with his best game in nearly a month. The team's lone outgoing player, who earned his diploma after just 3 1/2 years at the West Texas University, had been in a recent dry spell. He'd scored in double figures just twice since a 23-point effort Feb. 1 at Rice, including just two points in 22 minutes Saturday at Central Florida.
--G Michael Perez remains in his funk. The Miner two-guard hit his only field goal Wednesday -- a three-pointer to pull UTEP within four points late in the game -- in just a four-point effort. Perez (11.7 pts, 39% 3-pointers) has totaled only 15 points over his last three games, beginning with a horrific 1-for-8 effort in a Feb. 22 double-overtime home win against Southern Miss.
BY THE NUMBERS: 15-5 -- Margin by which UTEP was outrebounded on the offensive glass in its Feb. 25 loss at UCF.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Southern Methodist, March 3
KEY MATCHUPS: SMU is led by senior F Robert Nyakundi, who was averaging 14.9 points a game through Feb. 26, and junior G London Giles, who had a 10.8 scoring average.
UTEP has won eight consecutive games against SMU and 17 of its last 18, including 70-64 at home Jan. 14. Bohannon led UTEP with 20 points, sophomore G Michael Perez had 16 points, four assists and four steals, and McCulley finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals. Freshman G Jalen Jones led SMU with 12 points, and sophomore G Jeremiah Samarrippas added 11. UTEP shot 50 percent.
TRENDING: Regardless of where UTEP begins next week's C-USA Tourney, Floyd, who was kicked out of Wednesday's game late with a double-technical, thinks his Miners should be confident after the way they took down three of the conference's top clubs during that recent win streak.
"I love the fact that we were down 13 and came back (at conference leader) Memphis," Floyd said during the run. "We were down 16 (versus second-place Southern Miss) and we came back. Because we're gonna get down in the conference tournament and we've got a reference point now in terms of how to come back. ... Rebounding, defensive stops, not turning it over and not fouling."
The Miners have turned up that defense of late, allowing just 37.7% shooting over its last seven games before seeing a three-game sub-.400 streak snapped by Rice's 41% effort Wednesday.
FUTURES MARKET: Freshman G C.J. Cooper showed his potential by scoring a career-high 16 points in 25 minutes off the bench in a 76-68 victory over Southern Mississippi on Feb. 22. Cooper had scored in double figures just three times in his first 23 games this season through Feb. 26, and his scoring average was 3.5.
--Senior F Gabriel McCulley managed just two points, his season low, in a 63-45 loss at Central Florida on Feb. 25. That marked the fifth time in six games that McCulley scored in single digits. He averaged 8.0 points in that span to lower his season average to 11.3.
--Sophomore G Michael Perez scored five points, almost seven points below his team-best 11.7 season average, in the loss at UCF. The only time Perez scored fewer points this season in when he was shut out in seven minutes in a loss to California-Riverside on Nov. 13.
--Freshman F Julian Washburn had scored in double digits one in his last four games through Feb. 25 after doing so in each of the previous six games.