This time, BYU played like road veterans down the stretch.
The Cougars, who have had their problems with close games on the road, hit 11 of 14 free throws in the final four minutes to preserve a critical 69-65 win against the UTEP Miners here Saturday night.The victory gives BYU a 7-3 WAC record, one loss behind 5-2 Wyoming, which plays San Diego State in San Diego tonight. More importantly, it improves the Cougars' chances of a favorable seed in the first round of the WAC tournament. Utep is 5-5.
BYU almost blew this one, allowing the Miners to erase a 10-point deficit with a 9-0 run to start the second half. Then, during the middle of the half, Cougars repeatedly stepped to the free-throw line and made one of two foul shots - when they weren't missing both. In one eight-minute stretch, BYU's Shawn Bradley and Steve Schreiner combined to make just three of 10 foul shots, causing Coach Roger Reid all kinds of worry about what was going to happen in crunch time.
"I've never seen a team make the first free throw and miss the second as much as this team," Reid exclaimed.
For the game, Reid's team shot better from the field (55.8 percent) than it did from the foul line (55.6 percent).
Still, Reid was willing to forgive his young team for those misses after they made the big ones to clinch it.
"When they got down after having a lead, they stayed with it," he said. "The last three or four times downcourt, they ran the offense to perfection."
BYU ran its offense pretty much to perfection in the first half, too. When they weren't getting passes into Bradley and Schreiner and Gary Trost in the low post, they were kicking it back outside to guard Mark Heslop. Heslop came off the bench to make four three-pointers and lead the team in scoring at halftime with 15.
UTEP had started this game pumped-up, coming off a loss to Utah and a 90-minute closed-door meeting with Coach Don Haskins on Friday. The Miners may have been too pumped-up, however, as they missed their first eight shots, including a dunk by David Van Dyke.
BYU held the lead from the start until the 10-minute mark, when UTEP went up 17-15 on a basket and free throw by forward Marlon Maxey. BYU didn't waste any time regaining the lead, though, going ahead 24-22 on Heslop's three-pointer from the corner. The Cougars stayed in front the rest of the half, as the most noteworthy incident was a technical foul assessed to Johnny Melvin.
Kenneth Roberts, who was between Melvin and the official who gave the technical, smiled when asked what Melvin had done. "You'll have to ask the ref about that," Roberts said. Under more prodding, Roberts did acknowledge that Melvin used, uh, inappropriate language.
At halftime the score was 40-30 BYU. The good sign for the Cougars was that they had outrebounded UTEP 20-11, and UTEP hasn't won games in which it has been outboarded this season.
When the Miners jogged onto the floor for the second half, they were greeted by scattered boos from the crowd of 11,000, probably not unlike what they had heard from Haskins in the locker room. UTEP then went on its 9-0 run and eventually took the lead at 46-45, outscoring BYU 16-5 behind Maxey's 10 points inside.
The Miners led for the next seven-and-a-half minutes, but never by more than four. In the meantime, things were getting increasingly physical. Van Dyke gave Bradley a shove at midcourt during a deadball situation, and minutes later Van Dyke was called for his fourth foul - an intentional foul - for roughing up Bradley while on offense. That foul put Van Dyke on the bench. He returned briefly later, but quickly got his fifth foul, also against Bradley.
Bradley said Van Dyke had behaved in less than sportsmanlike fashion. "I wasn't impressed with a couple of cheap shots he took in there," Bradley said.
BYU was having bigger problems than Van Dyke, though. With UTEP's defense doing a good job of denying the ball to BYU's low-post men, Reid tried sending in Heslop again to open things up with some three-pointers. This time, Haskins countered by assigning Mark McCall to harass Heslop.
"McCall was picking me up at halfcourt," Heslop said. "Before we even got in our offense, he was my little shadow."
With seven minutes left, Bradley got his fourth foul and UTEP suddenly seemed more interested in fouling the BYU big man out than in running its offense. The Miners repeatedly took the ball right at Bradley, and the result was they scored four points over the next four minutes.
With three minutes left, BYU retook the lead, 60-59, on Bradley's 10-foot turnaround in the lane. UTEP went back in front briefly on a drive by Melvin, then BYU regained the lead on a pair of free throws by Trost. Except for a 16-footer by Roberts, the balance of BYU's scoring came from free throws.
Bradley's pair of foul shots with 11 seconds left put the Cougars up 68-65. McCall tried a three-pointer for the tie, but it missed and Scott Moon grabbed the rebound.
Heslop was BYU's leading scorer, with 17. Bradley had 16 points and seven rebounds, and Trost had 11 points. Guard Nathan Call had 10 assists.
For the Miners, McCall had 22 points and Maxey 19.
BYU next plays San Diego State on Thursday and Hawaii on Saturday, both in the Marriott Center.