The high and low points of one of the greatest seasons in UTEP basketball history occurred just days apart in March of 1992.
On March 14, BYU's Kevin Nixon sank a 54-foot shot from beyond halfcourt, lifting the Cougars to a 73-71 victory over the Miners in the championship game of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament at Fort Collins, Colo.
A little over a week later on March 22, UTEP rallied to stun top seeded Kansas, 66-60, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to reach the "Sweet 16" for the final time under legendary coach Don Haskins.
Two decades have passed, and that remains the last Miner team to win a game in "The Big Dance." UTEP has made three NCAA Tournament appearances since then.
While the 1966 national championship team is justifiably the most recognized in school history, the 1991-92 squad - which finished 27-7 - may be the second-most revered. On Feb. 11, UTEP honored the team's 20th anniversary during a home game versus Tulane, which several team members attended.
Sadly, three major components of that squad - Haskins, Gym Bice and Roy Howard - have passed away. The legendary Haskins died at the age of 78 in September, 2008. Bice, a junior guard and the team's best three point shooter, was electrocuted while helping install a friend's sprinkler system in May of 1996. Howard, a junior forward who made 14 starts that year, was killed in a trucking accident in August of 2006.
"I watched the Kansas game recently," Marlon Maxey, the team's leading scorer (15.2 ppg) said from his home in Chicago. "Coach Haskins was like a dad to me. Gym and Roy were great teammates and fun to be around. Those guys are going to be missed."
The 1991-92 season didn't begin with great expectations. The Miners were coming off a 16-13 campaign, and were widely viewed to be too inexperienced in the backcourt and lacking in size up front to make a title run.
Haskins, however, had several pieces to work with. Junior college transfer Eddie Rivera joined returnees Prince Stewart and Bice to form a swift and heady backcourt. The Miners weren't very big, but they were long and athletic up front with 6-5 Ralph Davis and Johnny Melvin and the 6-8 Howard. Maxey (6-8, 250 pounds) was a big body inside and 6-9 David Van Dyke was a prolific shotblocker.
"A lot of us had played together three or four years prior," said Davis, who also lives in Chicago with Maxey and Melvin. "We came through coach Haskins' system and we thought we could compete every night."
"We just liked each other," Melvin said. "We were like family."
It didn't take long for the Miners to show that they were better than advertised. They rocketed to wins in 16 of their first 17 games and rose to 19th in the Associated Press top-25 poll. UTEP didn't lose more than two consecutive games all season, and tied for first place in the WAC with a 12-4 mark.
The loss to BYU could've been demoralizing, but Haskins was quick to tell his players to get past it.
"He said that's how games go," Maxey recalled. "He said `We're going back to El Paso, let's lace `em up and learn from this.'
"Coach was a hell of a guy. He was something special. It was an emotional loss, but everybody fell in suit with the captain of the ship and we made a run."
Did they ever. Seeded ninth in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional at Dayton, the Miners dispatched eighth seed Evansville, 55-50, in the first round. Few gave UTEP a chance against the deep and talented Jayhawks, who were 27-4 a year removed from reaching the national title game.
Haskins knew it would be a long night for his team unless it could control the tempo. So in the final minutes of practice the day before the game, he installed a spread (four corners) offense, with Stewart and Rivera running the show.
When asked if Kansas coach Roy Williams could have prepared for it, Haskins said, "He hasn't seen it unless he got a tape of yesterday's practice."
Melvin scored 18 points, including a banked layup with 2:18 to go that put UTEP ahead 57-52 ("I made a whoop-de-do shot and got fouled," he says). Defensively, the Miners limited the Jayhawks to 42 percent shooting and 24 points below their season average.
UTEP would come up short in the regional semifinals five days later in Kansas City, bowing out to fourth seed Cincinnati, 69-67. The Bearkats drubbed Memphis in the Elite Eight, 88-57, showing just how close the 1992 Miners were to making a trip to the Final Four.
The memories remain.
"It has been a long time," Melvin said. "I'm 42 years old, and I've got pictures of that stuff on the wall."
"A lot has happened, but it doesn't seem like it has been 20 years," Davis said. "I like the fact that we can come back and re-connect with the community."
Courtesy Conference USA