Western Kentucky Beats UTEP 73-67 in 1st Round of C-USA Tournament

FRISCO, Texas – Calvin Solomon (season-high 18 points, eight rebounds), Shamar Givance (15 points, eight assists), Tae Hardy (16 points, four helpers) and Kevin Kalu (10 points, seven boards) all stuffed the stat sheet and UTEP played well across the board, but eighth-seeded WKU held off the ninth-seeded Miners, 73-67, in the opening round of the 2023 Conference USA Championships presented by TotalCare at The Star Wednesday evening.

It was a game that featured big runs from both sides, with the Miners (14-18) leading the Hilltoppers (17-15) by as many as 16 in the opening stanza before trailing by eight with 46 seconds left. A furious rally cut the deficit to three. After a turnover by WKU, UTEP had two 3-point attempts to tie the game that refused to go down. The Hilltoppers then iced the game with an old-fashioned 3-point play.

UTEP (28-67, 41.8 percent) hit five more field goals than WKU (23-54, 42.6 percent), won the boards (44-35), aided by 18 offensive rebounds, had advantages in points in the paint (38-28) and second-chance points (20-16) and compiled 19 assists to 13 turnovers. Both teams hit seven 3-pointers. One noticeable difference was at the charity stripe where the Orange and Blue finished 4-10 while the Toppers connected on 20-30.

The Miners compiled five steals in the game to conclude the season with a school-record tying 288, matching the efforts by the 2009-10 squad. 

“I thought our guys played extremely hard today,” UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. “We took care of the basketball, we won the points in the paint, we beat them on the rebound margin. We had seven 3-pointers, but the key was the free-throw line. They get 30 free-throw attempts and we get 10. They hit 20 and we hit four. It was a 16-point difference on the free-throw line, and that was the difference in the game.

“They’ve (WKU) got a really good players and have a played a lot of games in this tournament, so you knew they were going to make a run,” Golding said. “We didn’t finish the first half (strong) and they started the second half fast, and that’s where the game kind of flipped. After that it was a knockdown, drag out fight. We played it all the way to the bone and never quit. We gave ourselves a chance and got two looks at it to tie the game.”

It was 4-4 three minutes into the contest before the Miners ripped off five straight points, with a lay-up by Kalu followed by a corner 3-pointer from Hardy to afford them a 9-4 lead at the first media break (15:44 1H). Six of UTEP’s nine points to that point had come in the paint as it looked to attack despite the 7-5 Jamarion Sharp, including a pair of lay-ups by Solomon.

Hardy drained another triple out of the break, extending the run to eight straight before WKU halted it with a pair of free throws. UTEP countered immediately, this time with a 10-0 surge to suddenly vault out by 16 (22-6, 11:54 1H).

Givance initiated it with a silky-smooth jumper. After a stop, Hardy knocked down another trey. The Miners forced another empty possession, and Givance made them pay with a triple from the right corner. Ze’Rik Onyema then capped the sequence with deft touch on a lay-up, dropping the ball in gently.

WKU countered in a big way, cutting the Orange and Blue cushion to seven (22-15, 8:14 1H) after peeling off nine straight and prompting a timeout from Golding. UTEP responded well out of the break, getting a much-needed basket courtesy of Solomon.

The Miners eventually pushed it back out to 14 (34-20, 3:00 1H) with a 10-5 run, which included a rim-rattling And-1 dunk by Kalu. Derick Hamilton concluded it with a nifty lay-up to beat the shot clock. WKU answered by tallying the final eight points of the half, but UTEP still led by six (34-28) heading into the locker room.

WKU opened the second half on an 12-5 run on the way to pulling into the lead (40-39, 15:50 2H). UTEP then came up with a stop and Solomon went coast-to-coast on the way to ending the sequence and regaining the advantage by one (41-40). There were a couple of scores over the next few minutes, including a dunk by Onyema in traffic, to give UTEP a one-point edge (43-42, 11:42 2H).

The Miners were still up by one (45-44) before a 7-2 push from WKU propelled it ahead by four (51-47) at the eight-minute media timeout. Solomon then used a good pump fake to draw contact and earn a trip to the line, where he went 1-2 to make it a one-possession contest.

The Hilltoppers struck back with a quick five points on the way forcing a Miner timeout, with the Orange and Blue facing an eight-point deficit (56-48, 7:03 2H). UTEP still trailed by eight (58-50) before a 5-0 run cut the deficit down to three. The Miners were again within three (60-57) when WKU went nudged it back to five after two free throws.

UTEP then got a stop before Hardy hit a pull-up jumper to once again creep within three (62-59, 2:38 2H). WKU pushed it back to five with two free throws, but Solomon’s dunk cut it to three. The Hilltoppers answered immediately with their own dunk, which was followed by a 3-pointer to seemingly salt away the game.

The Orange and Blue had other ideas, getting within three after two treys by Givance fueled a 6-1 run. UTEP then forced a traveling violation by the Toppers, but respective attempts from Givance (20 seconds left) and Hardy (14 seconds left) didn’t drop. WKU then came up with the rebound and got a fast-break And-1 to end it.

The Miners will look to regroup in the offseason and come back stronger for the third year under Golding, who has piled up 34 wins through his first two seasons in the Sun City.