The improbable finish to the ‘16-17 season built up a feeling that maybe this UTEP team could give Miner Nation something it hadn’t seen since March 2005 -- when the Miners won their last conference tournament as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
With a matchup versus a Middle Tennessee team that suffered its only Conference USA loss at the Haskins Center, there was optimism that maybe UTEP could repeat its Feb. 4 performance for a spot in the C-USA Tournament championship.
Instead, the value of the Haskins Center crowd’s impact became obvious, and UTEP was easily dismantled by a Middle Tennessee team playing like the top-25 group that it is -- the Miners falling to the Blue Raiders 82-56 in the C-USA semifinals and, barring a postseason tourney invite, solidifying their second losing season in Tim Floyd’s seven years.
Led by Reggie Upshaw’s 18 points (eight rebounds), Middle Tennessee had four players score in double figures. Giddy Potts followed with 14 (seven rebounds), JaCorey Williams had 13 (six rebounds), and Antwain Johnson put up 11.
After UTEP scored the game’s opening basket 41 seconds into play, Middle Tennessee used the next 1:52 to put up seven straight and take a lead it would have for the rest of the game.
The Miners pulled within two points twice (5-7, 7-9), then five points (17-12) with 9:36 to play in the 1st half, but UTEP wouldn’t see a deficit within two possessions for the rest of the game.
With the Miners out of sync, out of rhythm, and flustered by MTSU’s defense -- UTEP committing 18 turnovers, 12 of them steals -- it was a performance that could’ve been taken straight from this season’s 12-game losing streak.
The Blue Raiders got up to their first double-digit lead (13-12) with 8:52 in the 1st, the Miners cut it back to seven on two occasions (23-16, 25-18), and MTSU then took back a double-digit advantage -- 28-18 as the clock read 4:24 -- that it would never give up.
After coming out of locker rooms leading 37-23, the Blue Raiders started the 2nd half with a 3-ball that put a dagger in UTEP’s hopes of successfully executing any potential halftime adjustments.
MTSU kept its intensity high -- never letting the Miners closer than 15 points -- and kept building on its advantage as the UTEP ran down the shot clock and directed offense with zero urgency.
With UTEP inexcusably taking only 10 3-pointers in a game the Miners were being blown out of, the Blue Raiders broke the 20-point-lead threshold with 11:22 on the clock (55-34).
The Miners immediately put the deficit back down to 19, but MTSU’s next basket put the Blue Raiders back up 21. Middle Tennessee would lead by 20-plus for the final 10:42.
The Blue Raiders got up to their game-high advantage of 29 as the clock read 1:32.
Middle Tennessee finished with 25 points off turnovers and outrebounded UTEP 41-30.