EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – UTEP men’s basketball (8-6, 1-2 Conference USA) is back to work as they hope to get back into the win column when they play at Louisiana Tech (8-6, 1-2 Conference USA) on Saturday, Jan. 7.
“We are on three game losing streak, three tough games, two of them going into overtime and when you lose those games and have a week off its probably the worst time. You really want to get back out and play,” UTEP head coach Joe Golding said. “We were really concerned about this being a long week of practice, but we’ve had a lot of good pop. I think our guys understand the sense of urgency of fixing things, getting better at close games, and finding a way to get over the hump.”
Right now, UTEP is riding a three-game losing streak. The Miners suffered losses against Kent State (Dec. 21); UAB (Dec. 29.), and Rice (Dec. 31) in their last three contests. Not an easy slate as Kent State is one of the top programs in the country and UAB was selected as the preseason favorite in Conference USA.
All three losses have come by a total of 12 points. Closing out games, making free throws, and taking care of the ball are some points UTEP head coach Joe Golding hopes the team can make adjustments on to turn those close losses into wins from here on out.
“We are right there. We are close. We got to value the things that we can control,” Golding said. “We can’t control three-pointers or free throws going in but what we can do is value the basketball, take care of it, box out, defend, execute things with discipline, so the things that we can control are things we are working on and valuing right now.”
In UTEP’s last two games, the Miners have turned over the ball a combined 40 times. Teams scored a combined 41 points off UTEP’s turnovers.
UTEP’s free throw shooting has also been something that has hurt them the last two contests. UTEP shot 14-of-25 (56.0%) at UAB and 10-of-20 (50%) against Rice at the charity stripe. Both games went into overtime and both games resulted in losses for UTEP.
“The three games were close. We were right there but the turnovers, we have to fix those, our free throw shooting, we have to fix those, “UTEP sophomore forward Ze’Rik Onyema said. “We should be 11-3 right now honestly because our free throw shooting those are points that we can have on the board already. I heard we were ranked as one of the worst free throw shooting teams, so that is something we have to fix especially since we shoot a lot of them.”
Onyema is right. UTEP is currently ranked 347th out of 352 NCAA DI teams in free throw percentage. The Miners are shooting 60.06% from the charity stripe so far this season. At the same time, UTEP does get to the line a lot. UTEP’s 25.6 free throw attempts per game is ranked 8th in the country.
“I went to go eat lunch today and ran a couple errands with my wife this morning and I got hit up everywhere I go on free throws,” Golding said. “Our players know too. It’s not like we aren’t working on it. We are working on it more than we ever have and maybe that is not a good thing either. Maybe it has become a little bit mental, but we are in close games. We have to continue to compete in close games, we are playing good teams and we got to make free throws. If you’re going to win close games against really good teams, you have to get to three free throw line and make them.”
Defensively, UTEP continues to be one of the best teams in the country on that side of the floor. The team is ranked 132nd in the country in total defense (67.2 PPG) and 66th in field goal percentage defense (40.3%). The Miners are also ranked 13th in the country in turnovers forced per game (18.00). They are also ranked 31st in the country in steals per game (9.1).
“We held Kent State to 47 points. UAB, one of the best scoring teams in the country, at the end of regulation the game was right where it needed to be, and then with Rice, we hold them to 62 points at the end of regulation,” Golding said. “Defensively, we’ve done a good job of guarding the three-point line, rebounding the basketball well, keeping teams out of transition so I am happy where we are with that.”
Four of UTEP’s eight wins on the season have come by five or less points. UTEP hopes to put together a complete performance when they take on Louisiana Tech at the Thomas Assembly Center in Ruston, LA on Saturday, Jan. 7. Tipoff is at 1:00 p.m. MT.