Beating the UTEP basketball team isn't exactly a rare feat these days.
The Miners, usually somewhere near the top of the WAC standings, find themselves where their football team perennially finishes - near the league basement. In the past month or so prior to Saturday's game against BYU at the Marriott Center, the Miners had lost their legendary coach to heart surgery, several players to injury and seven straight games.The Miners, in other words, were just what the Cougars needed. BYU, after losing three of its previous four games - with the only Cougar win the past two weeks being against this same beat-up UTEP bunch - was desperate for a victory.
The Cougs struggled through the first half, but, thanks to tough defense, clutch shooting by a freshman and a costly UTEP technical foul, managed to hand the Miners their eighth consecutive loss, 82-71.
The Cougars improved to 6-5 in the WAC and 12-8 overall, while UTEP fell to 2-9 and 10-10.
"It was nice because we played with enthusiasm and confidence," said Cougar center Kenneth Roberts. "The loss Thursday to New Mexico hurt us a lot, but it was important for us to win this one on our floor to help us finish up strong."
The Cougars seemed to pick up right where they left off Thursday - which was not a good sign for the 19,408 Cougar fans. UTEP dictated the tempo of the half, held BYU leading scorer Bryon Ruffner scoreless and had a 37-35 lead at intermission.
The second half, which was BYU's downfall against New Mexico Thursday, was just the opposite Saturday. Ruffner scored 11 points, freshman Nathan Cooper hit 3-of-3 3-point shots and UTEP couldn't figure out BYU's full-court trap defense.
"Roger (Reid) did a better job with his team than we did with ours at halftime," said acting UTEP coach G. Ray Johnson, who will fill in the rest of the year for Don Haskins.
Reid, in an attempt to speed up the tempo of the game, turned to a press in the second half. It seemed to befuddle the Miners. They went one eight-minute stretch scoring only a single free throw.
"Defense still wins games and it won it tonight," said Reid.
The game was tied, 45-45, with 15:13 to play when Miner center Jo Jo Garcia was called for a technical for hanging on the rim after a dunk. Roberts made both technical free throws and Cooper nailed the first of his trio of treys for a five-point trip down the floor and a 50-45 BYU lead. From there the rout was on.
"The technical foul was critical," said Johnson. "It switched the momentum of the game. We have to quit making those mental mistakes."
Even without the technical it's unlikely the Miners would have made a game of it. With the Cougars leading by five, 54-49,they went on a 16-1 run - sparked by two more Cooper 3-pointers - to take a 70-50 lead with 6:12 to play.
"Cooper was big, hitting those threes," said Ruffner. "He got us going and we started having fun out there again."
The Miners made a mini-run late, but the 11-point margin of victory was as close as they would get.
Roberts finished with a team-high 18 points, while Justin Weidauer and Randy Reid had 12 points each.
Next the Cougars will play Colorado State in Fort Collins Thursday. The Rams are the team that broke BYU's 24-game home winning streak two weeks ago. The game will begin at 9 p.m. to accommodate an ESPN2 broadcast.