EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – A career-high 28 points from Jamal Bieniemy wasn’t enough for UTEP on Thursday night, as the Miners fell to Louisiana Tech, 64-52, in their Conference USA home opener.
Louisiana Tech (12-3, 3-0 C-USA) used an extended 23-7 run in the first half, leading by as many as 20 points just before halftime. UTEP (7-7, 0-2 C-USA) fought valiantly in the second half despite being shorthanded, even getting to within seven points late in the game, but ultimately ran out of gas.
Postgame, Miners head coach Joe Golding was unhappy with UTEP’s effort, particularly in the first half, saying that some members of his team were, “entitled.”
“They came out and whipped our butts in the first half. I was embarrassed by our first half effort,” Golding said. “We just had some guys that didn’t compete and we had a lot entitlement. I was really proud of our effort in the second half. We played some guys that haven’t had a lot of opportunity and they played hard so I was appreciative of that so that’s what we have to move on and carry forward.”
The Miners gave up 41 points in the first half, but the effort Golding alluded to in his press conference was there in the second half as they held the Bulldogs to just 23 second half points. A 12-0 run is what got the Miners within seven late, but ultimately poor shooting (33.3%) doomed UTEP.
For Louisiana Tech, Cobe Williams led the way with 17 points. Kenneth Lofton Jr., a potential C-USA player of the year candidate, had 11 points and 18 rebounds on the night. Overall, LA Tech played nine players; all of them scored at least four points.
The Bulldogs have the look of a team that could make the NCAA Tournament and make some noise come March Madness. Louisiana Tech will likely battle with North Texas and UAB for the top spot in the C-USA West division.
Bieniemy’s career night kept the Miners somewhat close. The Oklahoma transfer scored 20 of UTEP’s 25 first half points. Just six Miners entered the stat sheet and only Bieniemy scored in double figures. Bieniemy was 10-21 shooting on the night; the rest of the roster was just 10-39 (25.6%).
“We have to complete the game and play 40 minutes. We can’t play in spurts, because when we take off that hurts our team in the long run. We have to play hard and consistent for 40 minutes,” Bieniemy said.
UTEP was shorthanded for Thursday’s game. Second-leading scorer Keonte Kennedy has a foot injury that will keep him out for quite awhile. Kennedy was seen rolling around the Don Haskins Center on a scooter with his foot in a boot.
That wasn’t it; guard Christian Agnew missed the contest due to health and safety protocols, as did assistant coach Butch Pierre and director of basketball operations Caleb Villarreal. This is the second time this season Agnew has missed a game due to COVID-19 protocols.
Golding wouldn’t let that be an excuse for his team, though, as he spent a good portion of his press conference harping on what he perceived as a lack of effort and sense of entitlement from some of the Miners.
“If you’re going to wear this uniform, you’re going to play your butt off for UTEP, so that entitlement has to go,” Golding said. “We’re going to play guys that play hard; we might be limited with scoring sometimes but we’re going to play guys that play hard.
“We need some success, but success comes from hard work,” Golding continued. “It comes from guys that want to play hard and play together. It might be game-to-game until we find a group that wants to do it.”
With less than 48 hours to turn around and prepare for Southern Miss coming into the Don Haskins Center on Saturday night, Golding hinted there could be some lineup changes for the Miners. UTEP played 12 different players vs. LA Tech trying to find the right combination, but couldn’t do so.
Playing with different lineups has been a common thing for UTEP; entering Thursday, they’d used 11 different lineup combinations in 13 games, the most of any team in NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
Next up for UTEP is what should be a very winnable game vs. Southern Miss (5-8, 1-3 C-USA) on Saturday night. The Golden Eagles snapped a six-game losing streak on Thursday with a 74-73 win at UTSA; it was USM’s first win since Nov. 24.
After Thursday night’s performance on the court and Golding’s comments after the game, Saturday could feel like a must-win game for UTEP, against an opponent it should be favored against. However, being shorthanded could once again rear its ugly head.
“Win or lose, we’re going through a lot. Our fans understand that but our fans want our team to go out and compete and go out and play hard because they’ve seen that for a long time,” Golding said.
UTEP and Southern Miss will tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Don Haskins Center.