Tigers Undo Miners for Conference USA Title
By Duke Keith: firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dukekeith
Now you see it, now you don't.
An opportunity for the UTEP Miners to not sweat Selection Sunday escaped them like a 12-point second half lead. Like a missed free throw. Like a long rebound.
UTEP let the Tigers run; and slowly, surely, those Tigers kept nibbling away at the Conference USA tournament championship until they consumed it at the death.
Freshman guard Joe Jackson hit two clutch free throws with seven seconds left to give Memphis its only lead of the game, but at the very time you want the lead.
That Memphis program. Same kids who got blown out on this same court not a month ago. Same bunch of freshmen who, with an automatic berth as the tournament champ on the line, outperformed the Miners' vaunted senior leadership.
As much as some Miners fans may have wanted to paper over the knowledge that credit is due with taunts and shouts as the Tigers took the championship trophy, Memphis stepped up.
One of the top recruiting classes in the entire country came of age in hostile territory. The soap opera that is basketball season to Memphis fans ended happily for them, while a Miners team that has prided itself on leadership is left to wonder, What next?
He's right. National perception easily ignores C-USA, spread too thinly across America's sun belt to compete for attention against the Big XII, SEC and ACC.
It's enough of a demographic footprint to get a solid TV deal -- there are lots of people who live where C-USA plays, and conference schools that play in large cities with few pro sports options are followed passionately.
It's not enough to garner attention nationally, though.
And the problem for the Miners now is, even if the NCAA Tournament selection committee wants to grant an at-large berth to C-USA, they have a choice -- regular season champion UAB, or UTEP.
Which brings us back to the game, looking great for the Miners all the way up until the final 10 minutes.
That's a loss of poise, and for a squad full of seniors, it's not acceptable.
Certainly, Memphis' game was a big reason why. When Randy Culpepper is a non-factor playing against his hometown team in the biggest contest of his senior season, somebody is playing defense.
Will Barton and Jackson frustrated Culpepper to distraction. Barton and Culpepper were each assessed technical fouls for shoving late in the game.
Even the Miners' Christian Polk had some ugly moments. Polk had a game-high 27 points, but had a little too much fun at times.
Good fun: after nailing the first of two big three-pointers with 6:30 left, he winked at the shooters' deity, Reggie Miller, calling the game for CBS.
Bad fun: a technical for taunting after another big three-ball in the first half, which got him yanked by Floyd.
Still, nobody else scored more than eight points for UTEP.
When UTEP ran its offense and made passes, they got easy buckets -- anyone who has listened to Floyd (and Don Haskins before him) knows this is how the Miners play and usually win. This vanished late in the game.
Again, credit the Tigers' defense. A key play was UTEP's second-to-last possession. Floyd explained that Memphis took away UTEP's trigger man on the play, Claude Britten, so, with the shot clock winding down, Julyan Stone had to create.
He did, slicing his way into the paint, but the Tigers didn't foul and Stone missed a lay-up.
Easier to notice was Memphis' offense, let loose for easy transition buckets by those long rebounds and some uncharacteristic turnovers. UTEP didn't allow that through the first 75-percent of the game, but there was plenty of it in the fourth act.
The Miners saw a championship trophy for the taking. Now they don't.