UTEP (12-13, 5-6 C-USA) begins a stretch of three games versus Conference USA’s upper echelon teams on Saturday at Memphis (19-7, 9-2 C-USA). The Tigers are tied for first place in the league standings with Southern Miss, who the Miners will host on Wednesday. UTEP will play at UCF, currently in fourth place, on Feb. 25.
Saturday’s game will be nationally televised on Fox Sports Network, with Ron Thulin (play-by-play), Perry Clark (analyst) and Jenn Hildreth (sideline) calling the action.
Memphis is 13-1 at home and UTEP is 0-8 on the road. The Miners were one of 19 Division I teams, and the only one in C-USA, still searching for their first road victory through the games of Feb. 15. UTEP had the second-best RPI of any team with no road wins (no. 169) behind Arkansas (no. 70) entering the week.
Saturday’s game represents a Homecoming of sorts for UTEP senior forward Gabriel McCulley, a native Memphian who played his prep ball at Craigmont High School.
The Tigers won for the 13th time in 15 games on Wednesday, outscoring Tulane 50-31 in the second half en route to an 82-64 victory in New Orleans. Memphis shot 74.1 percent over the final 20 minutes. Sophomore guard Will Barton was one of five Tigers in double figure scoring, leading the team with 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
Barton is averaging a team-high 18.2 points, 8.2 boards and 1.5 steals per game. Sophomore guard Joe Jackson averages 10.2 ppg and sophomore guard Chris Crawford paces the squad with 3.7 assists per outing.
The Tigers lead C-USA in scoring offense (75.1 ppg), scoring margin (+9.8 ppg), field goal percentage (.491), field goal percentage defense (.388) and blocked shots (5.9 avg.).
Memphis is 5-0 in C-USA home games, although the Tigers were tested in wins over Southern Miss (60-58) and Marshall (83-76). Memphis has won 62 of its last 64 C-USA home games dating back to the 2005-06 season with losses to UTEP in 2009-10 (72-67) and Tulsa in 2010-11 (68-65).
The Tigers lead the series 9-3, although UTEP has won two of the last three meetings. The Miners’ 72-67 victory at the FedExForum on Jan. 20, 2010 snapped the Tigers’ NCAA-record tying 64-game conference winning streak. No one on this year’s Miner roster played in that game. UTEP whipped the Tigers at the Don Haskins Center last season, 74-47, before Memphis exacted revenge with a 67-66 triumph in the C-USA title game in El Paso.
The Tigers are 5-1 all-time versus the Miners in Memphis, including 2-1 as joint C-USA members. All three games have been competitive, with the Tigers prevailing 66-56 during the 2005-06 season and 70-64 during the 2007-08 campaign.
THE LAST MEETING
Joe Jackson hit two free throws with seven seconds left, lifting Memphis to a 67-66 win over UTEP in the Buick Conference USA Championship title game on March 12, 2011 at the Don Haskins Center. It was the Tigers’ only lead of the game.
Christian Polk, who scored a career-high 27 points for the Miners, missed a potential game-winning jumper in the final seconds. Polk was 11-for-14 from the field.
UTEP bolted to a 9-0 lead in the first few minutes before a crowd of 11,769. But Memphis settled down, and rallied to tie the game twice in the first half, the last at 23 on a layup by Tarik Black with 5:51 remaining.
UTEP built a 36-25 lead with a minute to go in the first half, and maintained a comfortable margin for most of the second period. Polk’s three pointer put the Miners ahead 62-50 with 6:13 remaining, but UTEP scored only one field goal the rest of the game -- a Gabriel McCulley dunk with 2:41 left.
With the Tigers trailing 64-59 and two and a half minutes to play, Jackson took control. His three-point play sliced the deficit to 64-62. After Julyan Stone split two free throws to push the Miners’ lead to 65-62, Chris Crawford buried a three pointer to knot the score with 1:53 remaining. McCulley made one of two free throws with 1:30 to go before Jackson, following a timeout, drove to the basket, was fouled and hit the game-winning foul shots.
The Miners shot 52.2 percent in the second half, but were outscored 40-30, as Memphis went 11-for-13 from the line to UTEP’s 2-for-5. The Miners finished 9-for-16 from the stripe.
UTEP had only one player in double figure scoring. Jackson led the Tigers with 17 points. Crawford added 15, while Black and Will Barton chipped in with 11 apiece.