For the second time in three nights, Texas-El Paso's basketball fans headed for the exits early on Wednesday at the Special Events Center. BYU had the game in the bag with three minutes left to play, much as Utah did two nights earlier, and the home fans had seen enough. The so-called Bear's Den just ain't what it used to be.
"Hey, why are they leaving?!" reserve forward John Fish shouted from the bench to the crowd, which had treated the Cougars to nasty insults all night. "Look, they're leaving!"UTEP fans couldn't bear to watch anymore. The final score was 67-59, and by the end of the game the Miners had laid enough brick to build another arena and a fair-sized parking garage. BYU's relentless defense had much to do with it. With rarely an uncontested shot, UTEP made just 18 of 60 field goal attempts - 30 percent.
Even the Miners were impressed by their opponents. Afterward, two UTEP players congratulated BYU coach Roger Reid. "Coach, your team plays defense," they told him. Said Reid, "I've never had that happen."
The Cougars broke open a close game late in the first half when their 13-1 run turned a 21-20 deficit into a 33-22 halftime lead. The Miners trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half, and only in the late going, with a couple of desperate three-point shots, did they manage to cut BYU's lead to five points in the final minute.
The Cougars simply wore down the Miners with their superior depth (11 players played), size and defensive intensity. At the other end of the court, Russell Larson collected 16 points, Robbie Reid 15 and Mark Durrant 14.
It was just the kind of play BYU was hoping for after losing to New Mexico two nights earlier, but it was a disastrous performance for UTEP, which not only has started conference play with two losses, but two HOME losses.
"We lost the other night, and Utah got a nice win here," said Reid, whose team is 8-3. "We knew (UTEP) would come out desperate. You can't afford to lose two at home. I like the way we came out and went to war here. I'm pleased to get a split."
Clearly, the Cougars were not happy with their performance in Albuquerque on Monday, and it showed during Tuesday's practice in El Paso. The Cougars held an intense workout, focusing particularly on defense. Matters got so intense that the coach's kids - Randy and his feisty younger brother Robbie - came to blows. Robbie stole the ball twice from Randy, Randy put a hard body check on Robbie next time down the floor, then Robbie shoved Randy, then Randy shoved Robbie and . . . .
"I think I got in a pretty good right, then he got me with an upper cut with that flippin' left hand," said Randy. "Anytime you have a guy who's as intense as he is, and someone who's intense as I am, that's going to happen. We've always been like that."
"I'm just glad someone split us up - because I would have killed him," said Robbie, with a mischievious smile. "We were just frustrated. We were all mad at ourselves. It think it helped us."
On Wednesday night, the Reid brothers turned their sibling rivalry on the Miners. They played a big part in the UTEP guardline shooting a combined 8 of 32 from the field, and Robbie even managed to get into another minor tussle - with UTEP's Antoine Gillespie, not big brother.
With point guard Kurt Christensen sidelined for the game's last 30 minutes with a knee injury (his condition will be evaluated today), the Reids pulled extra duty and combined for 24 points in 56 minutes of action, making 4 of 5 three-point shots.
Which isn't exactly what UTEP's first sellout crowd in two years came to see. Some 12,222 fans implored the Miners and harrassed the Cougars but to no avail. "Everytime BYU plays they sell out," said Reid. "We're used to big crowds when we come to town - I think you know why."
With only eight scholarships players on the roster and two walkons in the lineup - the result of NCAA probation - the Miners, a perennial league power, had better get used to such nights.
The Miners made just 6 of 26 shots in the first half. The Cougars took Antoine Gillespie, who was averaging 23 points per game, out of the offense (he scored only three field goals, all in the final six minutes, and totaled 15 points). The only UTEP scorer they couldn't stop was Ralph Davis, who finished with 24 points.
"They guarded us very well," said UTEP coach Don (Bear) Haskins. "I don't think they could guard us that well if (the officials) made them keep their hands off us . . . There could have been 50 more fouls called."
The Miners played solid defense themselves, holding the Cougars to a 37.5 percent shooting performance. The Cougars, who decided at halftime to pack the ball inside to utilize their height advantage, scored only eight field goals in the second half, and six of them were layups.
"We've got a big battle coming up," Reid told his team in the locker room afterward. "We'll have to play hard again to be in the game."
Next up: BYU vs. Utah I, Saturday night in the Huntsman Center.