Two weeks ago, UTEP men's basketball was in jeopardy of playing in the 8-9th seed matchup to tip off the Conference USA Tournament in Huntsville, Ala.

Now, thanks to a three-game win streak and a few things in the standings shaking out in the Miners’ favor, UTEP (16-15, 7-9 CUSA) climbed up to the fifth seed and will face Liberty (No. 4 seed) in the quarterfinal round of the CUSA Tournament on Thursday, March 14, with a 4 p.m. (MST) tip-off.

Thursday, we will be at The District Pub & Kitchen West (3233 N. Mesa) for a special MinerTalk watch party. Join us for happy hour specials until 6 and feast on their $8 wrap special with fries.

There have been five teams seeded outside the top 3 to win the Conference USA Tournament since 2010—North Texas in 2021 (6th overall), Marshall in 2018 (4th), UAB in 2015 (4th), Memphis in 2011 (4th seed, beat UTEP in El Paso, 67-66) and Houston in 2010 (7th and coincidently beat UTEP, 81-73). Seven first or second-seeded teams have won the tournament outright since that stretch—taking up over half of the NCAA bids since 2010.

The Miners have played in the CUSA championship game twice—2010 and 2011—but have never won the tournament crown in this conference.

Now winners of three straight going into a winnable league tournament, could UTEP find a path to success in Huntsville, Ala. this weekend? As I said almost a month ago, I won't be surprised if the Miners play in the conference tournament or bow out as a first-round exit.

2023-24 season review

Attaining a winning season seemed like it was slipping away from UTEP's hands after they lost their fourth straight game in a 65-54 home loss to Sam Houston State on Feb. 24. But after they won three straight to close out the season, the worst the Miners will finish is .500 on the year.

The 2023-24 season for UTEP men's basketball can be characterized by peaks and valleys.

They started on a red-hot five-game win streak to open the season before cooling off and losing five of their next six. They won the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational for the first time since Golding has been here in a 78-67 win against Wyoming. The best moment in non-conference came in a buzzer-beater win against Cal (75-72) on Nov. 20, while the frustrating moment in the early season stretch came in a disgruntling home loss to Seattle (73-61) on Dec. 30.

The Miners started CUSA play with a 3-5 record, including a 10-point road loss at NM State (63-53) and a road collapse at FIU (72-68). They managed to pul out key home wins like their hard-fought victory over Western Kentucky (93-87).

Then, the squad went 4-4 to close the season, featuring successes and failures to wind up league play. The low point came in a four-game losing streak, in which they dropped back-to-back at home. However, the team was able to right the ship with two road wins at Jacksonville State and Liberty, along with a season-ending win against FIU.

Photo by UTEP Zay
Photo by UTEP Zay

Liberty scouting report

The Flames (18-13, 7-9 CUSA) lost four of their last six games to close out the season. They are 16-4 on the season when they score 70 or more points. Interestingly, UTEP is 16-4 themselves when they score 65 points or better.

Liberty had three All-CUSA honorees in Zach Cleveland (12.2 points, 6.2 rebounds & 4.0 assists), Kyle Rode (14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds) and Kaden Metheny (13.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists).

In the first matchup, the Miners watched as Metheny dropped 21 points on five made 3-pointers as Liberty stole the 67-65 win in El Paso. The Miners totaled 18 turnovers on their end and only forced 14 of their own defensively.

At Liberty Arena, UTEP was the team that dominated from the jump against the Flames, 67-51. The Miners shot an exceptional 58% from the field, behind 21 points from Corey Camper Jr. and 19 from Zid Powell.

Now comes the rubber match on Thursday. The key for the Miners is limiting the Flames' 3-pointers. If they stop them on the perimeter, UTEP wins this one.

Photo by UTEP Zay
Photo by UTEP Zay

UTEP players land on All CUSA list 

Tae Hardy (2nd team All CUSA) and David Terrell Jr. (Freshman of the Year) headlined the CUSA postseason awards for UTEP on Monday. Otis Frazier III was snubbed of an All-CUSA selection, as he was named onto the All-Defensive team and named an honorable mention on the all-conference list.

Additionally, Trey Horton, Elijah Jones and Terrell Jr. were named onto the All-Freshman Team.

Hardy led the Miners in scoring at 15.2 points and averaged 2.2 steals per game. He was a preseason All CUSA selection and delivered for the Miners all season. Terrell Jr. joins Vince Hunter (2014), Roy Smallwood (2000) and Henry Hall (1990) as only the fourth Miner all-time to win the Freshman of the Year award.

Photo by UTEP Zay
Photo by UTEP Zay

Look ahead beyond Liberty

If the Miners can get past Liberty in the quarterfinals of the CUSA Tournament, they would likely have to face top-seeded Sam Houston State. The Bearkats swept the season series against the Miners by a combined five-point margin. But the winner of this potential Friday morning matchup between the Miners and Bearkats would result in a key matchup with the title game on Saturday in sight.

As Golding has maintained throughout the years in the CUSA Tournament, the team needs to be hyper-focused on the first game. After that, UTEP will need to try to win two games in two days for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Our coverage tips off on Thursday at 4 p.m. with Voice of the Miners Jon Teicher and Steve Yellen calling the action. We will have MinerTalk, presented by the Oscar Arrieta Agency, after each game in the CUSA Tournament.

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