POSTED: Sunday, December 11, 2011 - 7:47pm
UPDATED: Sunday, December 11, 2011 - 11:37pm
Senior Gabriel McCulley posted career-highs for points (18), rebounds (13), assists (seven) and steals (three) in his second game back to the UTEP lineup, as the Miners evened this year's edition of the SONIC Battle of I-10 Rivalry Series with a 73-69 win over NM State on Sunday.
Playing before an energetic crowd of 7,839 fans, UTEP (2-4) surprised the Aggies (5-4) by bolting to a 24-7 lead in the first seven minutes. At one point UTEP scored 18 consecutive points, including nine from Michael Perez, who finished with 19.
The Aggies continued to salt away at the lead, climbing to within seven points (45-38) at the half. Trailing 56-50 with nearly 14 minutes to play, NMSU mounted a 10-3 run to take its first lead of the game, 60-59, on a pair of free throws by Daniel Mullings with 10 minutes remaining.
NMSU extended the lead to 65-60 on a dunk by Tshilidzi Nephawe with seven minutes left as the Miners endured a lengthy dry spell that produced one field goal in nearly eight minutes. But Cedrick Lang's bucket with 4:30 to go ended the cold streak and jump-started an 11-2 spurt that put the Miners ahead 71-67 with under two minutes on the clock.
With his team down 72-69 in the final half-minute, the Aggies' Wendell McKines missed a three pointer and Perez closed it out by hitting one of two free throws.
The Miners neutralized NMSU's top two scorers, as McKines (18.1 ppg coming in) and Christian Kabongo (16.1 ppg) combined for 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting. Hernst Laroche was 4-for-4 from three-point range and led the Aggies with 16 points.
"We got really good play in our backcourt for the first time this year," UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. "Jacques Streeter had some turnovers in the second half, but I thought he did a solid job defensively. I thought Mike Perez was really outstanding. I don't think Kabongo had a point at halftime. Julian [Washburn] and Mike had him and both did a terrific job. Gabe McCulley's 13 boards were huge. I think I made a big mistake leaving him out there too long [36 minutes]. We kept him out there until the eight minute mark because he was the only guy that was getting it off the board for us. He was tired and couldn't lift his hands to catch it."
UTEP shot 50 percent - including 56.7 percent in the opening 20 minutes - but the big story was the Miners turning the tables on the bigger and stronger Aggies on the boards. After being battered on the glass in an 89-73 loss at Las Cruces on Nov. 19, UTEP outrebounded NMSU 39-30 on Sunday. McKines posted 11 boards, with all coming on the defensive end after he collected seven offensive rebounds in the initial matchup between the teams. The Miners also enjoyed a 20-10 edge in second chance points.
Perez and Washburn (16 points) both established career-highs for points.
UTEP will continue its stretch of nine games in 19 days on Tuesday at UNLV (8 p.m. MT). The game will be televised on The Mountain network.