Julian Washburn scored 20 points to lead four UTEP players in double figures as the Miners finished off East Carolina, 77-68, to christen the Conference USA Championship on Wednesday in the Don Haskins Center.
The fifth seed Miners (23-9) advance to take on fourth seed Southern Miss (26-5) in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 6 p.m. Tickets are on sale now by calling 747-5234.
A key for UTEP on Wednesday was containing the Pirates’ explosive Akeem Richmond, who put 36 points on the board against UTSA the night before. Richmond finished with 14 points, many coming long after the game had been decided.
“I thought we played really inspired defensively in the first half,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd. “[Julian Washburn] told me before the game that Richmond wasn’t going to get 36 [points]. I said ‘Well, I hope that doesn’t mean like 35.’ He played hard and inspired like he always does.”
UTEP pounced on East Carolina (17-16) early, running out to a 24-6 lead in the first 10 minutes. The Miners did not trail and the game was tied once, at 5-5. UTEP was ahead 42-26 at the break.
The Miners took their largest lead of 23 points (51-28) with 16:35 to play, but couldn’t completely shake the Pirates, who pulled within 13 points a few times. After East Carolina closed to within 72-59 with 2:49 remaining, Floyd put starters John Bohannon, C.J. Cooper, Vince Hunter and Julian Washburn back in the game.
The final score marked the closest East Carolina had been since it was 15-6 at the 14:50 point of the first half.
Bohannon had a double-double – the 20th of his career – tying him with Jim Forbes and Nevil Shed for the fifth-most in school history. Hunter added 12 points and Willms had 11. C.J. Cooper was UTEP’s fifth effective starter with five assists and no turnovers in 29 minutes.
UTEP shot 51.8 percent from the field, held East Carolina to 43.1 percent, and out rebounded the Pirates 37-30.
Paris Campbell and Prince Williams tied Richmond for high scoring honors on the Pirates with 14 points apiece.
UTEP and Southern Miss will be meeting in the Conference USA Championship for the third time and the second straight year. The Golden Eagles have beaten the Miners three times over the last two seasons.
“Obviously it will be a very difficult task coming back and playing a talented ball club tomorrow,” Floyd said. “We’ve not had much success against them. They’ve really had our number. We don’t have much time to prepare. We were not worried about Southern Miss this week. We were worried about getting through an East Carolina team that we have a lot of respect for.”