Vince Hunter scored 20 points, and UTEP held Middle Tennessee to 29 percent shooting in the second half en route to a 63-54 win over the Blue Raiders on Thursday night at the Murphy Center.
The Miners (12-6, 2-1 C-USA) won for the seventh time in eight games and ended Middle Tennessee’s 25-game home winning streak over conference opponents. It was the Blue Raiders’ first loss in a conference home game since Jan. 13, 2011.
UTEP broke open a tie game (37-37) with a 13-3 run in the second half, taking a 50-40 lead on a three pointer by C.J. Cooper with 6:34 remaining. That came about a minute after freshman Jake Flaggert drained another three to push the lead to 47-40.
The Miners held Middle Tennessee to one field goal in a span of nearly six minutes from 8:28 left to the 2:47 mark, when Reggie Upshaw scored a layup. UTEP outscored the Blue Raiders 13-4 during that stretch, extending a 44-40 lead to 57-44.
UTEP had 12 blocked shots – eight in the second half – and limited Middle Tennessee to 32 percent shooting on the night. The Blue Raiders were held 23 points under their season average.
“We had a real special defensive effort on the road,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “Our length was outstanding tonight. Vince Hunter was terrific at finishing. He finished everything every time he took the ball back to the basket. He had some big offensive boards. He just keeps getting better. He’s getting better defensively every night out, learning to guard his position at the 3, learning to stay down throughout defensive positions. He did a great job.”
Hunter shot 10-for-13 from the field in scoring 20 points for the second consecutive game. He also had eight rebounds and four steals in 31 minutes.
Julian Washburn scored 12 points, C.J. Cooper 11 and John Bohannon came within one block of tying the school single-game record. He had seven rejections to go with his eight points and 11 rebounds.
“Julian had five big assists in the game, no bigger than the last kick to C.J. for a three late that got us up 10,” Floyd said. “Bohannon was a real factor defensively under the basket with seven blocks. We ended up outrebounding them by five, which was an eight rebound differential in the second half. That was probably as big as anything.”
The Miners got off to a good start, putting together a 10-0 run to build a 12-4 lead in the opening minutes. After Middle Tennessee went up 29-24 on a jumper by Neiko Hunter late in the first half, Washburn nailed a big three to make it a two-point game at the break.
Neither team shot particularly well in the first half – UTEP 37 percent and Middle Tennessee 35.7 percent. The Miners were outrebounded 21-18.
In the second half, the Miners shot 56.5 percent – finishing at 46 percent for the game – and outrebounded the Blue Raiders 22-14. They outscored Middle Tennessee 36-25 in the final 20 minutes.
“I thought our guys played every little defense that we played very, very well tonight,” Floyd said. “They’re playing well collectively. They’re not playing with any agendas. We’re continuing to defend, which is the only way we can win right now. We’ve got to limit people’s ability to score. I thought our guys did a great job and played with great poise late as well.”
A key for the Miners was Cooper being able to stay on the floor for the full 40 minutes, especially after he picked up his third foul with 16:16 to go.
“We just had to change defenses and change the pace that we played offensively to protect him, and limit possessions to protect him,” Floyd said. “You look at the press they put on us late - we couldn’t have won the game had he not been in there. He really handled the press well. I thought Bohannon did a great job of inbounding the ball against the press.”
The Miners will continue their two-game road trip by playing at UAB on Saturday at 6 p.m. MT. The Blazers are 10-0 at home this season.
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