El Paso, TX — Vince Hunter tied the UTEP freshman scoring record with 26 points, as the Miners moved into a first-place tie in Conference USA with a thrilling 89-79 win over Louisiana Tech on Thursday in the Haskins Center.
Hunter made 8-of-12 shots and 10-of-16 free throws while adding nine rebounds for UTEP (15-6, 5-1 C-USA), which has a five-game C-USA winning streak for just the third time and the first time since the 2009-10 season.
“It’s a quality win for us,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “It’s a very good Louisiana Tech team.”
The preseason favorite Bulldogs (17-5, 5-2 C-USA) dropped into third place as the Miners matched Southern Miss atop the league standings.
UTEP also secured the 500th victory in the Don Haskins Center, which opened in 1977.
The Miners closed the first half with a 15-5 run, turning a 31-28 deficit into a 43-36 lead. They kept on coming early in the second half, surging to a 51-39 advantage on two free throws by John Bohannon with 16:54 to play.
Louisiana Tech chipped away, but ultimately couldn’t get closer than five points. After the Bulldogs cut the gap to 53-48 on free throws by Alex Hamilton with 13:36 remaining, Hunter scored a layup and Matt Willms rebounded C.J. Cooper’s three-point miss and dunked to reinstate a nine-point lead.
The Bulldogs pulled within six three times in the final 10 minutes, but the Miners had the answer each time. They built another 12-point lead (80-68) on a driving layup by Cooper with 3:32 to go on the way to winning for the 10th time in 11 games.
Even with a depleted backcourt the Miners handled the Louisiana Tech defensive pressure, committing 14 turnovers that led to only 13 points for the Bulldogs.
“To win we had to have really good backcourt play, because we played against a full court press all night long,” Floyd said. “Those were some of the biggest question marks when we started with this new basketball team on Dec. 28, as to whether or not we would be able to keep our guards in a game, whether or not they would be able to handle that type of pressure throughout the game, and whether or not they could play against those kinds of athletes who like to drive it and remain in the game.”
Answer yes to all three questions. Cooper (17 points, five assists and four steals in 39 minutes) and Julian Washburn (21 points, four assists in 39 minutes) were magnificent at both ends of the floor. Washburn, meanwhile, became the 33rd member of UTEP’s 1,000-point club.
“Julian just keeps getting better and better as a secondary ball handler,” Floyd said. “Defensively he was special for the fourth consecutive game guarding a point guard out front. And C.J. really did a quality job in the floor game all night long. He’s shooting it better and he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”
Hunter duplicated the 26 points scored by Giovanni St. Amant when he was a UTEP freshman versus Hawaii on Jan. 2, 2003. John Bohannon picked up his seventh double-double of the season, and the 17th of his career, with 13 points and 11 boards.
“He had to do it [rebound] against that group because that’s who they are,” Floyd said of Bohannon. “They like to rebound, push out and get you in transition and go and shoot layups. We only gave up seven fast break points all night long, a real key stat against that group.
“Vince Hunter was just terrific. We’re watching greatness get better and better every night in front of our eyes. I’ve had some great freshmen along the way, guys like [DeMar] DeRozan and O.J. [Mayo] and Taj [Gibson], and he is playing at that level.”
Louisiana Tech was led by Chris Anderson and Hamilton, who scored 17 points apiece.
“That’s a very good Louisiana Tech team,” Floyd said. “If we see them in the conference tournament, it won’t be any fun. They’ve just got too much talent. They’ve got a lot of guys that create problems for us.”
The Miners put together their second straight outstanding offensive performance, shooting 56 percent from the field while scoring a season-high 89 points. Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, shot 42.4 percent and had its troubles behind the three-point line (8-for-33).
“Another key part of the game was we ran them off the three-point line pretty well tonight,” Floyd said. “I think they made their first three or four, but from that point on they didn’t shoot a great percentage.”
The Miners will complete a three-game homestand versus Rice on Saturday at 7, and Floyd campaigned for the team’s first sellout of the season.
“Our crowd [Thursday] was phenomenal and I want them to spread the word. I’d like to have a sellout in here on Saturday,” he said. “I just think these kids deserve it and we’re playing at that kind of level. We’re in first right now and I’d like to see our people respond and pack this place in. I think we really deserve it based on effort. I’ve never asked people to come out. I think you’ve got to earn these things. But I think these kids are earning it as we move along.”