Julian Washburn scored 20 points and made 9-of-13 shots, and UTEP looked sharp in its final tune-up for the Conference USA Championship on Saturday, thumping SMU 76-63 in Garland.
With nothing to play for in terms of tournament seeding, the Miners (17-13, 10-6 C-USA) nevertheless reached 10 C-USA wins for the fourth time in five years while squaring their league road mark at 4-4. UTEP had one of its most efficient offensive games of the season, shooting 59.2 percent from the field and 47.4 percent (9-for-19) from three-point range.
“We were really solid offensively,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “All night the ball moved and we shared it. As a result we shot for percentage and really took quality shots. We were good in the open floor, maybe the best we’ve been in terms of finishing plays. We really have been suspect in that area all season long.”
SMU (15-16, 5-11 C-USA) had lost eight times in conference play by nine points or less entering the day, but the Mustangs were pretty much out of it after a 19-5 UTEP run extended a 20-16 lead to 39-21 late in the first half.
C.J. Cooper hit a couple of three pointers and Washburn added five points in the spurt. SMU scored the final four points of the period to pull within 14 (39-25) at the break.
The Miners shot 60 percent (15-for-25) from the field in the first half and made 6-of-11 three pointers.
UTEP pushed the lead to 50-29 in the first four minutes of the second half, as Washburn provided the exclamation point by dunking over the Mustangs’ 6-10 Cannen Cunningham. The Miners had their largest lead of the afternoon (66-44) when Cooper drained his third three-pointer with 8:51 remaining.
With three Miners (Cedrick Lang, Konner Tucker, Chris Washburn) on the bench with four fouls, SMU strung together seven straight points to pull within 15 (66-51) with under seven minutes remaining. The closest the Mustangs could get down the stretch was 11 points (74-63) in the final minute, as the depleted Miners still had the answer at every turn.
Washburn has scored 39 points in the last two games, connecting on 15-of-22 field goal attempts, and should be a strong contender for Conference USA Player of the Week on Monday. He was equally as solid on the defensive end, holding the Mustangs’ Jalen Jones to seven points on 3-of-7 shooting.
“The job Julian did on Jalen Jones was very important in the game,” Floyd said. “I thought Konner Tucker did a good job on Shawn Williams [nine points, 4-for-12 shooting], which was very important.”
The Miners had four players in double figure scoring for the fifth time this season. Cooper had 13 points, Lang had 12 and McKenzie Moore had 11. Jacques Streeter dished out 10 assists.
“I think C.J. has really played well over the course of the last five games. He continues to make open shots,” Floyd said. “Jacques’ unselfishness was great. He had the toughest assignment on the floor with Nick Russell and did an admirable job.”
Russell scored in double figures for the 16th time in 16 C-USA games, but just barely, finishing with 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
The teams were whistled for 39 fouls, including 25 in the second half. UTEP was assessed 25 fouls on the afternoon, including four each to the Washburn brothers, Lang, Tucker and Hooper Vint.
“We were in a game that was obviously very closely officiated,” Floyd said. “We were able to manage our fouls, although I thought we put them at the line a little more than we would have liked. It seemed like every trip in the second half resulted in a trip to the foul line. As a result, we had to play a little box and a little triangle. The triangle helped us in the first half, but not so much with the box in the second.”
Floyd downplayed the importance of the Miners getting to 10 conference wins and splitting their eight league road games. UTEP has posted consecutive C-USA road victories for the first time since January of 2011.
“I don’t know that it is really significant,” he said. “The biggest thing is that we finished third in the league. It became apparent after the Southern Miss game that that was our next goal. We were able to finish that.”
The Miners will depart El Paso late Tuesday afternoon for Tulsa, Okla., where they will face the winner of the 6/11 game in the C-USA Championship quarterfinals on Thursday. The tournament bracket, including game times, will be announced later tonight.
“How we play today is going to have no significance in how we play next week,” Floyd said. “Every game is different, every opponent is different, and every opponent brings new challenges. But I like the way we played the final month of the season.”