Julian Washburn scored 20 points to lead six UTEP players in double figures, and UTEP advanced to the semifinals of the Conference USA Championship with an 80-69 win over Houston on Thursday at the BOK Center.
Jacques Streeter added 13 points and tied the championship single-game record with 12 assists, as the third-seeded Miners (18-13) earned a date with second-seed Southern Miss (24-8) in the semifinals on Friday at 2 p.m. Mountain time. The game will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network.
“I thought our guard play was outstanding tonight,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “C.J. Cooper came in for the second half and did a great job. We needed to get Jacques and Konner [Tucker] a blow so they could finish the game. C.J. has been terrific for about six straight games.
“I thought Konner kind of got his head back up a little bit. He handled the ball well. Jacques was absolutely terrific. One of the most difficult matchups for us in this league is [Joseph] Young. We really struggled with what we were going to do with him. We put Jacque on him and I thought he did a really great job on that end.”
Young, the Cougars’ leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, shot 4-of-13 from the field for eight points.
Tucker scored 12 points and McKenzie Moore had 11. Cedrick Lang and Cooper added 10 each as UTEP had six double-figure scorers in a game for the first time since March 10, 2011 versus Marshall in the C-USA Tournament in El Paso.
Washburn had a big first half with 13 points as UTEP took a 32-27 lead at the midway point. He shot 9-for-16 from the field for the afternoon. In the last three games Washburn has tallied 19, 20 and 20 points.
“Julian has been playing very well and he was just terrific early,” Floyd said. “He is playing with a lot of confidence on the offensive end as a poster, as a guy facing, and I think he is one of the great, great defenders I have ever coached. He is playing the best basketball of his career right now, and we’re certainly going to need that if we get through our next opponent.”
The Miners trailed only once, at 16-15 midway through the first half, although the Cougars (19-12) hung around deep into the second half. UTEP finally gained some separation with an 8-1 run in the final 10 minutes that pushed a six-point lead (55-49) to 13 (63-50). Cooper hit two three-pointers during the spurt.
Houston cut the lead to eight points twice in the final eight minutes. After the Cougars made the score 58-50 on a free throw by Danuel House with 7:38 to play, UTEP scored the next five points. When the Cougars pulled to within 71-63 with 2:47 remaining, the Miners answered with six unanswered points.
The Miners shot 51 percent from the field in an uncharacteristically potent offensive display.
“It’s like some people scoring 130,” Floyd joked of his team reaching 80 points for the third time this season. “We try to score. We’re trying to push it, trying to run, trying to play up-tempo. It just doesn’t always work out that way. It helps when you make shots, when you shoot for percentage.”
UTEP has scored 76 and 80 points in the last two games with 40 assists during that stretch.
“I think what’s going on with the team, is our ball movement is so much better than it was a month ago,” Floyd said. “Guys are turning down a good shot for a great shot. Most every shot tonight was with space. I think that leads to a comfort zone with players. C.J. had a little space on both of those releases when he knocked them down, and he also got the ball to about 10 feet off of penetration late in the clock and knocked one down. He is a much-improved player from where he was early in the season.”
TaShawn Thomas had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Cougars, who had won four consecutive games.
Now the Miners will try to crack a Southern Miss zone that frustrated them in a 45-39 loss at Hattiesburg on Feb. 20.
“We put a whopping 39 [points] on them. We just could not solve their zone,” Floyd said. “It’s a very good zone. Their guard play is absolutely terrific at all three spots. You saw [Neil] Watson go for 19 in the first half tonight. I don’t know how many times that kind of thing has happened with their team. It might be [Dwayne] Davis, it might be [Jerrold] Brooks, and then those two inside guys are really terrific rebounders. They just go back and get every miss.
“They like to push it. They’re going to give us a little press in front of what we’re doing. I feel confident that we’ll be able to play against a press this late in the season, I would hope. We’ve got to do a better job collectively of attacking their zone than we did in Hattiesburg. Of course we had three days to prepare [for that game], and that’s a little different setting than trying to do it in 12 hours.”