El Paso, TX — UTEP battled back from a 10-point second half deficit and slipped past Western Illinois in the final seconds, 67-64, at the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational on Saturday at the Don Haskins Center.
The Miners (9-5) extended their season-long winning streak to four games, outscoring the Fighting Leathernecks (5-8) 17-4 in the final five minutes.
Michael Ochereobia’s dunk put Western Illinois ahead 60-50 with 5:12 to go. The Miners took their first lead since very early in the second half, 65-64, on a jumper by Vince Hunter with 43 seconds remaining. After Western Illinois missed two shots on the other end, C.J. Cooper was fouled and made both free throws with five seconds left. The Fighting Leathernecks turned over the ball on their final possession and dropped to 0-7 on the road in 2013-14.
“Obviously we feel very fortunate. We played a team that we knew it was going to be very difficult to score [against],” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “They had five guys packed in that lane all night long and did a great, great job defensively.”
Western Illinois came in ranked among the national leaders in scoring defense (56.6 ppg). UTEP shot 34.6 percent from the field, tying its lowest mark of the season. But the Miners outrebounded the Fighting Leathernecks 39-30 and had a commanding advantage at the foul line. UTEP finished 29-for-39 at the stripe to Western Illinois’ 11-for-16.
“We won the game on the offensive boards late and at the foul line,” Floyd said. “I feel for their staff and their kids. They played their tails off and gave themselves every opportunity to win the game.”
Julian Washburn scored 18 points, John Bohannon 15 and Vince Hunter 14 to lead the Miners. Bohannon registered another double-double with 12 rebounds, and Hunter contributed nine boards.
Bohannon had 10 rebounds in the second half. Washburn scored 12 points in the final 20 minutes, and Hunter added 10. C.J. Cooper was 9-for-9 at the foul line in the final period.
“I thought Julian and Bo really played well late with big offensive and defensive boards,” Floyd said. “[They are] understanding where you win games late now. We’re not cranking up 18 footers. There’s a reason why we shot a lot of free throws. We were able to get the ball around the basket against a team that was packed in very well. We got the ball off the offensive board several times and we played with good poise late in terms of not fouling and getting great defensive stops.”
The Miners played without leading scorer McKenzie Moore and Jalen Ragland, who are suspended indefinitely for what Floyd termed a violation of team rules.
“I don’t know how long it will last,” he said. “I’m learning more information as I sit here. It’s very disheartening. I certainly hope they come out on the positive end of what’s going on. Unfortunately I’m not able to talk about it right now. Eventually everything does come out and will come out, but right now I have been asked not to say anything. Right now they’re not with our team and I told them I’ll have more to say to them on Tuesday. It’s unfortunate and that’s kind of where it is.”
The Miners looked like they were trying to find their way for the majority of Saturday night’s game before rallying late.
“We had a setback with our team today and this is going to be our new group here for a while,” Floyd said. “I thought we looked a little shellshocked early but played with spirit and heart and effort. We’re going to be in a lot of close games this season.”
UTEP will cap the tournament by facing Denver on Sunday at 7 p.m. The Pioneers topped Alcorn State, 67-49, to tip off the tournament on Saturday night.