Since 2008 the Miners and Cougars have met four times in the Conference USA tournament and each team has won two games.
UTEP won the last meeting 67-62 in overtime of the first round last year, but Houston's win over the Miners in the 2010 tournament still lingers in the minds of the Miner faithful as the seven-seeded Cougars reeled off four straight wins culminated with a 81-73 finals win over the 25th ranked Miners.
Although it did not cost UTEP a berth in the big dance, it did prevent the 12-seeded Miners from achieving a higher seed in the NCAA tournament as they lost to eventual runner-up Butler in the first round.
Even as Rice threatened to derail the 5th Conference USA tournament meeting between the two schools over the last six years, Houston held off the Owls 72-67 to set up one last meeting as the Cougars get ready to exit the conference.
As it has been for most of the season the Cougars rely on the sophomore duo of forward TaShawn Thomas (16.9 ppg and 9.4 rpg) and Joseph Young (18.5 ppg and 43% from three). Houston has other weapons at their disposal, but the UTEP defense must slow down these two dynamic players in order to advance.
Young didn't have his best game in the Rice win, scoring just 10 points (0-3 from three) so he could be looking to have a break out game today against the UTEP backcourt. On the other hand, Thomas, as he has all season continues to play at a consistent level scoring 16 points and pulling down 10 rebounds against an overmatched Owl frontcourt.
UTEP's defense should provide much more resistance than the Owls as evidenced in 63-53 win over the Cougars in El Paso on February 27th, but the Miners know all too well how dangerous this Houston offense can be as the Cougars ran them out of the gym in a 79-61 win in Houston back in mid-February.
Something will have to give and after Houston's close call to Rice yesterday afternoon, the Miners seem to have the advantage of fresh legs as the Cougars must make a quick turnaround (less than 24 hours to the scheduled 1:30PM MDT tipoff) as they try and upset UTEP for a place in the semifinals on Friday.
Based on both teams' previous results over the last two weeks, this should be a close game that will come down to making shots, protecting the ball and winning the battle on the boards.
Houston may have the edge on the offensive end, but like they say "defense wins championships" and all UTEP fans know that where Coach Tim Floyd and assistant coach [/db]Phil Johnson[/db] come in.
If UTEP can play defense at a high level similar to the last few weeks, the Miners can get a jump-start on an improbable run in this tournament with a win over Houston tomorrow afternoon.
One win at a time.