EL PASO, Texas – The UTEP men’s basketball team raced out to a 17-2 lead and never looked back in an eventual 70-68 victory over two-time defending C-USA West Division Champion North Texas in front of 5,521 fans in the regular-season finale at the Don Haskins Center Saturday afternoon.
The Miners’ (18-12, 11-7 C-USA) effort ends the Mean Green’s (23-5, 16-2) 15-game winning streak and also hands North Texas its first road loss of the season. UNT had entered the contest as the only team in the nation without a road defeat.
Souley Boum (22 points), Keonte Kennedy (17 points) and Jamari Sibley (11 points) all reached double figures in scoring to lead the way for the Miners, who never trailed in the contest. Boum had 20 of his 22 points in the second half, including two clutch free throws with 17.4 seconds to play to extend a five-point lead to seven. UTEP was up by five with one second to play before UNT hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to account for the final points of the affair.
Kennedy had 13 points in the opening stanza, which helped the Miners build a 14-point (35-21) cushion at the half. Tydus Verhoeven (nine points, three boards) and Jamal Bieniemy (eight points, four assists) also made contributions in the game for UTEP.
The 70 points tallied by UTEP easily surpassed the nation-leading 55.1 scoring defense that North Texas entered the game with. That was helped by the Miners shooting 48.9 percent from the floor, including 45.5 percent from beyond-the-arc. UTEP also was 21-25 at the charity stripe, including 19-21 in the second half to stave off any comeback bids by the Mean Green. Another factor in the outcome was UTEP hanging tough (29-27 differential for UNT) on the boards.
The Miners will head to the 2022 Heritage Landscape Supply Group Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championships having won back-to-back games and 10 of 14. They will be the No. 4 seed out of the C-USA West Division and will face No. 5 seed from the East Old Dominion at 7 p.m. MT/8 p.m. CT on March 9. The Miners’ 18 wins are already the most since UTEP finished 19-14 in 2015-16. The 11 conference victories allowed UTEP to forge its first winning record in the league since going 12-6 in 2016-17.
“What a game, what a great way to end it (the regular season)” UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. “I’ve been wanting a big home win so bad for our fans. To finish it on our last home game and beat what I think is one of the best teams in college basketball, I’m just so excited for our fans, our community and obviously our players.
“It was a back-and-forth game,” Golding said. “I’ve got the upmost respect for North Texas. I think they belong in the NCAA Tournament regardless what happens in Frisco. For our players to trust the process, fight all year and to be rewarded all year, I’m so proud of them.”
UTEP raced out to an 17-2 lead eight minutes into in the contest, including eight straight at one point from Kennedy. It included an 15-0 run in the span of 7:37 for the Miners, who hit 6-8 from the floor to begin the game hot. They also forced four UNT turnovers during the game-opening surge, which featured a scoreless drought of eight minutes for the visitors. Bieniemy (five points) and Verhoeven (four points) also provided points during the run.
North Texas ended it with back-to-back baskets before Kennedy buried an NBA range 3-pointer to put UTEP up by 14 (20-6, 8:49, 1H). The Mean Green countered with a 10-3 surge to cut the Miner lead to seven (21-14, 4:30, 1H). UTEP answered that with a 11-4 run to go back out by 14 (32-18, 1:52, 1H). Boum started it with a floater, which was followed by a turnaround jumper from Kennedy and a dunk by Ze’Rik Onyema. After UNT cut it to 11, Bieniemy reinstated a 14-point lead at the break (35-21) with a 3-pointer as time expired.
The Mean Green had a 14-4 run out of the gates to start the second stanza, cutting the Miner margin to four (39-35, 12:59 2H). UTEP responded with back-to-back baskets from Sibley to go back out by eight (43-35). The Miners continued to control as the second half wore on, with the advantage at 12 (55-43, 6:08 2H) after Boum heated up with scores on three straight Miner possessions.
North Texas struck back with six straight, whittling the UTEP lead down to six (55-49, 5:12 2H). A pair of free throws by Boum stemmed the tide and put the Orange and Blue back up by eight. They took care of business down the stretch, with North Texas never able to get back in the game as UTEP salted away the win at the free-throw line.
UTEP will lock up with Old Dominion at 7 p.m. MT/8 p.m. CT on March 9 at the 2022 Heritage Landscape Supply Group Conference USA Men’s Basketball Championships on March 9 at the Star in Frisco, Texas. Jon Teicher (41st year) and Steve Yellen (19th year) will be on the call on the free UTEP Miners App