Championship Game of the Conference USA Basketball Tournament
Third seed UTEP v Fourth seed Memphis 9:30 am Saturday March 12, 2011
The Don Haskins Center, El Paso, Texas
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Here’s Who Is Involved and How They Got Here
The UTEP Miners
The Miners battled an always tough Tulsa team for a chance to play for the conference championship on Saturday morning. As expected, the two teams treated the fans with a battle royal. Conference USA’s leading scorer, Tulsa guard Justin Hurtt, averaging 20.1 points per game, and runner-up UTEP guard Randy Culpepper, reigning Player of the Year, averaging 19.3 points per game showed off their wares in front of a roaring house full of Miners fans. Randy Culpepper made it clear that the award for this year’s Player of the Year probably should have been his, again. His 26 points led all scorers, and was 9 points better than Justin Hurtt’s 17. Fellow UTEP guards Christian Polk and Julyan Stone also played a huge role with Polk adding 13 points and Stone contributing 9 points, 8 rebounds, and six assists, and playing tough defense throughout the game, playing the entire 40 minutes. Using 4 players down low, the Miners held Tulsa big man, Steven Idlet, who averages 12 ppg, scoreless. After 20 minutes of play, Tulsa held the lead, 28-27. The Miners had 9 rebounds and Tulsa had 21 at the half. In the second half, the Miners played like it might be their last time to play together if they didn’t win, and they started claiming rebounds as their own, and putting pressure on Tulsa’s defense, relentlessly taking the ball to the hoop. The Miners built a 12 point lead with just under 5 and a half minutes left in the game, and never let Tulsa get back into the game from there on out.
Final Score: UTEP Miners 66 Tulsa Golden Hurricane 54
The Miners built a big lead against the Thundering Herd of Marshall in the first half, and then hung on to eventually pull away from a tiring Herd team and finish with a 12 point win on their home court, 77 to 65. The Miners used balance scoring, with six players posting double digits, and a mixture of defenses to keep Marshall’s offense off balance in the win.
The Miners finished the regular season with a 23-8 record overall, and 11-5 in conference games. At home, the Miners are 17-2 this season, and 7-1 against conference opponents. The Miners fans make the Don Haskins Center one of the toughest places to play in the conference. Averaging over 8600 per game, the fans can energize the Miners, and intimidate opponents. Expect to see that number to jump to 12,000 per game in the conference tournament, and those 12,000 will be fired up, with a passion for Miners basketball that has given UTEP and El Paso a nationally recognized reputation for a place most teams don’t want to come to.
The Miners will face Memphis in the Conference USA Tournament Championship game
The Tigers took the court against the Pirates of ECU who had dispatched the top seeded Blazers of UAB the previous day. A combination of playing their third game in as many days, and the loss of their floor general, Brock Young, who was injured it the Pirates win over UAB proved to be too much for the Pirates to overcome. Memphis jumped out to a big lead midway through the first half, and never looked back. Joe Jackson scored a career high 24 points for the Tigers. The Pirates looked like they were playing in lead sneakers, while the Tigers looked like their had springs built into them. The Tigers built their lead to 29 points. Final score: Memphis 76 ECU 56.
In Memphis’ first game of the Conference USA Tournament, the Tigers held on to beat the Golden Eagles of Southern Miss 66-63. Both teams’ defenses were evident, especially in the first 20 minutes. The young, but very talented and athletic Tigers pushed the Southern Miss team, but the Golden Eagles refused to fade away.
The Tigers finished the regular season with a 23-9 record overall, and 10-6 in conference games. At home, the Tigers were 17-2 this season, and 7-1 against conference opponents. On the road, the Tigers were 4-6 overall, and 3-5 in conference games. ON neutral courts they were 2-1.
Key Players For Each Team Are
The Miners use a number of players and lineups depending on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Having said that, there are four players that average between 30 to 36 minutes per game. Guard, Randy Culpepper is the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year. Guard, Julyan Stone is arguably the best all around player on the team. Culpepper is a prolific scorer, leading the Miners with an average of 19.5 points per game, and Stone is UTEP’s All-Time leader in assists, and the team’s leading rebounder this season, averaging 7.4 rebounds per game.. Both of them play high intensity defense. Culpepper’s quick feet and even quicker hands have allowed him to make 65 steals this season to lead the conference averaging 2.6 steals per game. Stone is a quick guard and at 6′ 7” his height gives other guards fits. Guard, Christian Polk averages almost 33 minutes per game. From the field he shoots at a .429 clip, but from beyond the 3 point line his average actually goes up to .444. Polk is second on the team in scoring average with 11.3 points per game. Forward, Jeremy Williams is third on the team in scoring, averaging 10.7 points per game, and second on the team in rebounding, averaging 5.4 per game. Williams can also step out beyond the three point line, shooting .409 from there. In the paint, the Miners have three players that see the most minutes, and each give Coach Floyd’s team a different look. Gabe McCulley is a 6′ 7” Guard/Forward who can grab rebounds and use his quickness inside to score, or step outside and hit the three point shot. Freshman, John Bohannon, the Miners 6′ 10” Center averages 5.5 points per game, and 4.9 rebounds per game in the 19.4 minutes per game he averages. Big Claude Britton, a 6′ 8” , 280 pound Center sees limited playing time due to an asthma condition, but when he is in the game he is a powerful force down low. The big man has a soft shooting touch, and can put up points in a hurry, and provide plenty of muscle to move opposing team’s big men around.
The Tigers get their wins with their speed and athleticism both offensively and defensively. Their team has balanced scoring, and depth. Will Barton averages 12.5 ppg and pulls down 4.9 rebounds a game. Wesley Witherspoon adds 9.8 points and 4.6 boards per game. Tarik Black contributes 9.4 points per game and hits 54% from beyond the arc, and he shoots a lot from that range. Besides his scoring threat from beyond the 3 point line he also leads the team in rebounding, averaging 5.2 boards per game. The Tigers seem to be able to just bring people off of the bench with no let up in talent, energy, and scoring.
How It Will Turn Out
The Tigers have owned Conference USA Basketball for the past few years until chinks in their armor began to appear last year. The Miners were responsible for some of those chinks. The Tigers depend on the athleticism on defense and offense. The Miners play disciplined defense and offense. This is talent, athletic ability, and youth against talent, discipline and experience. The two teams played on February 26 at the Don Haskins Center, and the Miners handed the Tigers the worst loss in many years, beating Memphis 74-47. That was then, this is now. The Miners will again have the advantage of a packed house of Miners Maniacs cheering them on. The Tigers will be scratching and clawing their way for an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Somehow, this seems to be just the way it should be. I don’t expect the Miners to beat the Tigers like they did a couple of weeks ago. That just doesn’t happen very often, but the Miners will have the confidence and experience to win the big one to become the 2011 Conference USA Tournament Champions.