Last Saturday, the Huskies survived a furious San Diego charge, watching a 14-point lead with 1:37 remaining evaporate to two in the closing seconds before holding on for their third-straight win, 98-94. Meanwhile, in Las Cruces, the Miners rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final 1:18 before falling to New Mexico State -- Washington's next opponent -- 73-71.
For UTEP, who went 23-9 a year ago (including a season-ending loss to Memphis in the second round of the NIT), it was their fourth-straight loss -- all on the road. However, it's a different story for the Miners at "The Don" Haskins Center, where they have won eight in a row and 17 out of their last 19.
UTEP has fallen behind by double-digits in the first half of five-straight games, and it has third-year coach Jason Rabedeaux scratching his head. "I wish I had an answer," Rabedeaux says. "It isn't like we've been playing the sisters-of-the-poor (TCU, Providence, Texas Tech, NMSU and now Washington). But if we have one thing to correct, it's taking better care of the basketball. Teams are shooting a ridiculous percentage against us because of our turnovers."
In Washington, Rabedeaux sees a hungrier, more athletic team than the one his Miners beat 73-61 a year ago in the season-opener at Key Arena. "Washington is good – they're 5-1. And they've got some incentive to return the favor because of last year. Aside from Fresno, they are as athletic a team as we will see. They're getting there."
Rabedeaux lost only one starter from a year ago -- the school's all-time scoring leader Brandon Wolfram. Like San Diego previously, UTEP starts four seniors, led by 6-10 center Brian Stewart. Stewart, a transfer from San Jose State (where he never played) after two years prior at Washington State, made the All-Tournament team at the Las Vegas Invitational, where he averaged 16.3 points. Stewart blocked eight shots in his Miner debut last season, tying a school record. Junior forward Roy Smallwood, the WAC's Freshman-of-the-Year in 2000, is the only UTEP starter to have opened every game. Smallwood leads the team in rebounding, and opened the season with a pair of 22-point efforts. "Roy and Stew have to touch it every time down the floor," says Rabedeaux of his two front-liners. "We have to make an issue of that."
That will be up to senior guard Eugene Costello. Costello, who missed the regular season opener recovering from a summer foot injury, struggled early while getting back into game shape but broke out against New Mexico State, with season highs in points (18) and rebounds (8). Costello is the Miners' returning scoring leader from a year ago, when he averaged 14.7 points. His 26 points led the UTEP victory over Washington last year. Evergreen-Vancouver product Chris Neal also registered a season high against the Aggies. The senior tossed in 15 points in his second start of the season.
UTEP will be trying to prevent a 2-5 start, which would be their worst start in 42 years. Washington, meanwhile, looks to go 6-1 for the first time since 1997-98.
Indeed, there would seem to be a lot of incentives for BOTH sides.
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NOT TO JINX THEM, but the Huskies have hit 132 free throws so far this year. In a 30-game season, that projects to 660 made free throws. Last year Washington hit 335 freebies in 617 tosses . . . the 98 points against San Diego was the Huskies' highest output since January, 1998 against USC . . . in case it somehow escaped notice, Washington lost the services of freshman Mike Jensen for the season after a dislocated shoulder he suffered at Monday's practice. He'll be having surgery on December 10th and should be able to apply for a medical redshirt.
NEXT UP: Saturday, December 8 vs. New Mexico State in Las Cruces, NM.
(Rick Samek can be reached at email@example.com)
WASHINGTON CL HT PTS REB TEXAS EL-PASO CL HT PTS REB Doug Wrenn SO 6-8 17.2 5.6 Roy Smallwood JR 6-6 13.7 6.2 Grant Leep SR 6-7 5.5 3.2 Leonard Owens SR 6-6 3.5 3.7 David Dixon SR 6-11 10.8 8.3 Brian Stewart SR 6-10 14.2 3.5 Curtis Allen SO 6-0 15.2 5.0* Chris Neal SR 6-2 8.3 3.2* Erroll Knight FR 6-7 10.0 2.7 Eugene Costello SR 5-10 10.2 4.6 (* = Assists)