EL PASO, Texas- Keonte Kennedy came alive for a career-high 27 points-including a career-best three triples- while Christian Agnew (season-high 16 points) and Jorell Saterfield (13 points) also reached double figures in scoring as a short-handed UTEP men’s basketball team found a way to defeat NC Central, 70-61, in its first-round game of the 60th Anniversary edition of the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational Tuesday evening.
UTEP advances to the championship contest for the 46th occasion, where it will shoot for a second straight and 33rd tournament title overall when it locks up with Bradley at 7 p.m. MT Wednesday. The Miners played yet another game with two starters out, this time going without Souley Boum (21.1 ppg, 2.9 apg) and Tydus Verhoeven (4.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.0 bpg). Reserves Alfred Hollins, Cam Clardy and Ze’rik Onyema also missed the contest.
“I’m proud of our guys,” UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. “NC Central has a really good team, they are a really well coached, run really good stuff and they came in with three wins in a row. We were a little short-handed tonight, but it was incredible guts by our team. We just found a way to win a basketball game, so I’m extremely proud of their effort.”
Kennedy has now hit double figures in scoring for four straight contests, a career-long streak. He did a little bit of everything Tuesday, including getting to the charity stripe for a career-best 8-of-9 at the charity stripe.
UTEP shot 44.7 percent from the floor, including 43 percent from 3-point range, and made 76 percent at the charity stripe. The Miners racked up nine assists while committing a season-low seven giveaways.
Agnew and Jamari Sibley each netted five boards to lead the way for the Orange and Blue on the glass.
NC Central scored 15 seconds into the contest but a triple by Jamal Bieniemy (first game in two weeks) and a floater by Saterfield powered a 5-0 Miner run. The two sides went back and forth over the next few minutes, with four lead changes over the next couple of minutes before an 8-0 run put NCCU up,16-9, seven minutes into the game.
UTEP regrouped and responded, countering with a 13-3 surge-including 9-0 to regain the margin at 22-19 with 6:45 left in the first half. Kennedy’s teardrop-floating three highlighted the surge. The advantage was at one (24-23) before Agnew nailed a corner trey and Kennedy showed off his strength with an acrobatic and-one putback off a missed dunk.
The Miner lead swelled to nine before they settled for a seven-point cushion (33-26) heading into halftime.
UTEP methodically marched its advantage to 12 (42-30) with a quiet 6-0 push before NCCU registered seven consecutive points to force Golding to call timeout, with the Orange and Blue up by five (42-37) with 13:43 to play in the game. Kennedy drained a corner three to reinstate control temporarily, but the Eagles continued to battle and whittled the differential down to four on multiple occasions.
Each time the Orange and Blue had a response, coming from different players at critical times. Kennedy provided the dagger with a corner three to put UTEP up by 10 with under two minutes to play in the contest.
UTEP will face Bradley in the championship game of the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational at 7 p.m. MT Wednesday