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El Paso, TX — Vince Hunter scored 21 points and Julian Washburn added 20 as UTEP rebounded from its first loss in over a month and topped FIU, 84-71, on Saturday at the Don Haskins Center.
Playing before a season-high home crowd of 11,176, the Miners (19-7, 9-2 C-USA) maintained their first-place standing in Conference USA. UTEP is now part of a three-way tie for the league lead with Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee.
The Miners played perhaps their best half of the season against the Panthers (13-13, 5-6 C-USA), surging to a 39-21 lead at the break. UTEP shot a season-high 66.7 percent in the first 20 minutes and held FIU to 30.8 percent. Washburn scored 15 first-half points, making 6-of-7 shots and all three of his three point attempts.
“We played inspired defensively in the first half,” Floyd said. “We really did a terrific job in all areas. Maybe our best half of the year defensively and offensively in terms of ball movement, playing through the post and shot selection.”
The Miners finished with a .571 field goal percentage. Washburn was 8-for-11 from the field. Hunter was 7-for-11. Washburn was 4-for-4 from beyond the arc, and Cooper was 3-for-6.
“Things always look better when you make goals. They just do,” Floyd said. “We made shots and a lot of them were late clock. You look at Julian’s percentage right now from [three] versus where it was a year ago and you credit his hard work. He, C.J. and Jake Flaggert have stayed late every day since we lost those three guys on Dec. 28. They have stayed late and shot for 30 minutes after every practice, and it pays off.”
After falling behind 5-2 early, UTEP went on an 18-5 run to build a double-digit lead (20-10). The Miners closed the period with a 14-4 spurt.
UTEP went up by 20 (41-21) on a layup by Cedrick Lang 11 seconds into the second half. FIU scored the next seven points, trimming the deficit to 13 (41-28). After the Miners pushed the lead to 17 (47-30), the Panthers scored nine unanswered, once again battling back to within single digits (47-39).
FIU closed the gap to seven points a couple of times, the last at 63-56 with four minutes to go. But UTEP closed it out with a 16-6 run.
Cooper scored 17 points and Lang added 12 for the Miners, who moved to 9-1 when they place four or more players in double figures.
UTEP played without senior John Bohannon, who served a one-game suspension.
“John Bohannon did not play for poor academic performance and for not taking care of his academic responsibilities,” Floyd said. “I’m very glad that we won in his absence.
“[Academics are] always going to be important. I don’t care if we’re tied for first or we’re one game back and we’ve got to win it to clinch the first seed in the conference tournament, if these guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing away from the court then they’re not going to play. That’s just the way it is. They’re going to understand why they’re here and they’re going to treat every academic situation with respect. And John Bohannon should know better at this point of his career.”
The Miners had more than enough to win without him, holding FIU to 42.6 percent shooting and outrebounding the Panthers 35-29.
“Julian Washburn was terrific and as good as he has been since he’s been here in the first half of that ball game,” Floyd said. “Matt Willms played his best ball in probably a month and a half. Cedrick Lang had a couple of big baskets to start the second half when we could’ve come out cruising. Vince Hunter was terrific. C.J. is playing well. He had more turnovers than he probably would’ve liked, but we played against a pretty athletic team and full court pressure for the final 30 minutes of that ball game.”
The Miners are back on the road next week, playing at Tulane Thursday and Southern Miss Saturday. The Southern Miss game will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network.
“We are going to play two teams that have always given us issues,” Floyd said. “We’ll play against a bunch of man [defense] one night and a bunch of zone the next night. So it’s an important week of practice for us.”
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