C.J. Cooper connected on a career-high four three point field goals, and UTEP tied its season high with 10 trifectas in a 65-53 win over Rice on Wednesday at the Don Haskins Center.
Cooper (14 points) scored in double figures for the first time this season and for the fourth time in a Miner uniform, shooting 4-for-5 from beyond the arc. The Miners (13-8) knocked down 10-of-19 triples for the second time in three games in reaching the midway point of the Conference USA schedule with a 6-2 mark in league play.
“It was a game that we probably needed. We had a chance to play against zone all night long,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “I think that will help us somewhere down the road.”
The Miners trailed just once, at 3-2, before blowing out to a 23-10 lead midway through the first half. After Rice (5-17, 1-7 C-USA) cut the deficit to eight points, UTEP closed the half with an 8-2 run to take a 35-21 lead at the midway point. Both teams were sluggish to start the second period, with neither scoring in the first three and a half minutes.
“I thought they did a nice job in their zone. I thought we had a lot of opportunities, particularly at the start of the second half,” Floyd said. “We missed five consecutive shots right at the rim to start the second half, and then an open three by Konner [Tucker]. We didn’t get a lot of those shots down.”
A 10-2 surge gave the Miners their largest lead of the evening, 48-29, on a three pointer by Cooper with 10:36 to play. Rice pulled within eight (48-40) on a three by Keith Washington with 7:19 remaining, but couldn’t get closer.
The Miners enjoyed their third-best shooting night of the season (51.1 percent) while tying a season-high with 21 assists. John Bohannon (11 points) and Julian Washburn (10) joined Cooper in double figure scoring.
Cooper scored all 14 of his points in the second half, when he was perfect (4-for-4) from beyond the arc.
“C.J. won two games for us last year, Southern Miss at home and a game out in Hawaii,” Floyd said. “This guy can make shots. He’s got a real feel for the game. We knew that at some point he would help us win a game this year, and he did tonight. And I think that will happen in other games, because he can really shoot the basketball. He’s clever in terms of being able to get it off and create separation, even though he’s not a blinding athlete with great speed. He’s got the head and shoulder fakes and the sweeps.”
UTEP was outrebounded 30-27, with Cedrick Lang snaring a game-high eight boards. McKenzie Moore collected seven rebounds, part of a stellar stat line with nine points, seven assists, two blocks and two steals.
“We did not get an offensive board for a basket in the second half, which is really discouraging against a smaller team,” Floyd said. “We didn’t outrebound them, which is discouraging.
I thought McKenzie Moore played really well. He played really unselfish. He had a lot of opportunities where he could’ve tried to do more with the ball and probably would’ve been ok, but was willing to make the next pass. Cedrick Lang played well. I’m trying to get some of these other guys some minutes right now, but I really know that Ced is a guy I can count on. I know he can handle playing these minutes at the start of both halves.”
The Miners assisted on 87.5 percent (21-of-24) of their field goals.
“That’s not untypical of a team that’s playing against a zone all night long, because generally that pass leads to the shot,” Floyd said. “And when you see that we did not get offensive putback baskets, which generally don’t have an assist behind them, that’s where [the assists] came from tonight.”
The Miners will cap a three-game homestand on Saturday against a Tulsa team that held them to 42 points in a three-point loss on Jan. 16 at the Donald W. Reynolds Center.
“I think we’ll watch a lot of film tonight and tomorrow on those guys and see what’s worked against them for other people,” Floyd said. “We missed a lot of shots that night. They guarded us. They play a real spirited man-to-man defense, and we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did at their place.”
With Southern Miss losing at UCF earlier in the night, UTEP closed to within a game of the second-place Golden Eagles, setting up what should be a very interesting second half of the league slate.
“We recognize that we’ll have opportunities against Southern Miss and Memphis. There are still a lot of games to be played,” Floyd said. “We know that we let one kind of get away from us at UAB, but at the same time maybe we stole one at East Carolina that we had no business winning.
“We’re not a dominant team by any means. We have to get better every night out. But I like our team. And I really like us in the years to come with what’s happening right now and what’s coming in here in the future. As long as we get an opportunity this year, we’re going to try to steal every game we can, and look up and see where this thing is at the end.”