EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — If you ask the UTEP (6-4, 2-2) men’s basketball team, Friday and Saturday’s games against the defending Conference USA (C-USA) regular season champions, North Texas (5-5, 1-1), is just another game on the schedule they expect to win. However, back-to-back wins in Denton could catapult the Miners into the top half of the C-USA West Division standings. If it goes the other way, UTEP could fall to the bottom half of those standings. A series split keeps the team in neutral.
It seems pretty simple: win and put yourself in position to compete for a conference championship, but the Miners are playing with something to prove on Friday and Saturday.
UTEP has been inconsistent since starting league play and it has come with a roster, on paper, that is loaded with talent. A team that looked like a conference contender in wins over Southern Miss and Rice, but appeared to be the UTEP of year’s past in losses to those very same Golden Eagles and Owls in league adopted back-to-backs. The difference: playing with more consistency.
“I think the consistency is what you do everyday [in practice],” said UTEP head coach Rodney Terry. “I think if you’re a team that tries to hang your hat on being defensive minded, you don’t worry how well you’re going to shoot the ball from game-to-game. You come into the ball game saying, ‘I’m going to get lost on defense and play as hard as I can defensively.’ We’ll figure out what we need to do to win the ball game in terms of scoring.”
One area the Miners have seen some consistency with is the play of their guards who are taking care of the basketball at an elite level. UTEP is ranked first C-USA and 12th nationally in turnovers per game (10.1) and has only turned the ball over 18 times (6.0 per game) in their last three games.
The emergence of Oklahoma transfer guard Jamal Bieniemy has allowed for Souley Boum to emerge as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.6 points per game, which ranks fifth in the conference. Bieniemy is averaging 19.0 points and 5.8 assists per game in four C-USA contests. He leads C-USA in assist/turnover ratio (4.0) and is fourth in assists per game (5.3).
“We value taking care of the basketball, which we’ve done a pretty good job of for the better part of the year,” said Terry. “We’ve been a low turnover team where we don’t beat ourselves and that gives you a chance to be in position to win the ballgame.”
Bryson Williams scored a season-high 29 points against Rice this past weekend and is averaging 15.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
North Texas is coming off a series split at UTSA and is the top shooting team in the conference, shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three-point. The Mean Green is led by the reigning C-USA Player of the Year, Javion Hamlet, who leads UNT in scoring (13.2 ppg) and assists per game (5.4). James Reese (10.3 ppg) and Zachary Simmons (10.1 ppg) also average in double figures.
“You have to do a good job in trying to contain him [Hamlet]. You’re not going to stop him,” said Terry. “He’s one of the most competitive guys and he really willed their team last year to a conference championship. Guys like him, you label them as winners because they’re going to make winning plays, they’re going to do things defensively and offensively that is going to help their team win ballgames.”
UTEP leads the all-time series 10-5 against UNT, but the Mean Green have won the last two meetings, defeating the Miners 58-51 on Jan. 10 2019 at the Don Haskins Center and 67-57 on Jan. 25, 2019 in Denton.
Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. MT on Friday and 2 p.m. MT on Saturday at the Super Pit in Denton. The game will air on Stadium.