For the sixth straight year, UTEP is heading the NCAA basketball tournament. The Miners, 25-6, made sure of that Saturday night in the Huntsman Center with a 73-60 victory over Colorado State in the finals of the WAC tournament.
For the Rams, the WAC regular-season champs, the loss ended their 11-game winning streak and dropped their record to 22-9."I'll tell you, the last two games were absolutely as good as we've played thiis year," said UTEP Coach Don Haskins. "This will give us great momentum going into the (NCAA) tournament."
While the purpose of Saturday night's WAC final was to determine a representative to next week's NCAA basketball tournament, in reality, however, the game was quite meaningless since both teams were about 99 percent certain to be invited to the NCAAs. Still there were 5,401 fans who had shelled out $16 waiting at the Huntsman Center along with a national audience watching on ESPN.
By winning, at least the Miners could rest easier for the following 18 hours until the NCAA bids are officially announced on CBS-TV Sunday afternoon, while the Rams sweat a little bit.
UTEP's Tim Hardaway, who was named most valuable player of the tournament, scored 25 points to lead the Miners. He also came up with four steals, four rebounds and three assists. Prince Stewart, who joined Hardaway on the all-tournament team, scored 22 points and Greg Foster added 12.
The Rams, who sank 10 3-pointers in a losing effort, were led by Joel Triblehorn with 17 points, Trent Shippen with 16 and Pat Durham with 12. Durham was also named to the all-tourney team along with Michael Smith of BYU and Reggie Cross of Hawaii.
The Miners, who won the WAC tourney in 1984 and 1986 and placed second in 1985 and 1988, shot 57 percent from the field for the game, including a red-hot 73.7 percent in the second half. They handily won the rebounding battle 27 to 15 and turned the tables on the defensive-minded Rams with a stifling defense that caused an uncharacteristic 12 Ram turnovers.
"I thought our defense was just outstanding tonight," said Haskins.
After taking a 36-31 halftime lead, the Miners broke out fast in the second half, scoring the first two baskets and quickly upped their lead to 10 at 45-35. The Miners hit nine of their first 10 shots to open the second half. When Hardaway sank a 15-foot baseline fadeaway at the 9-minute mark, UTEP led 58-43. The biggest lead was 18 at 73-55.
CSU's Triblehorn kept firing in 3-pointers, but the Rams could never get closer than 13 at 68-55 and the 13-point final margin.
The Miners were playing without leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Antonio Davis, who suffered stretched ligaments in his left knee in the second half of Friday night's game with New Mexico. A year ago, he broke his ankle in the first game of the WAC tourney.
But Davis' replacement, freshman David Van Dyke came in and played well, scoring the Miners' first basket and six first-half points, eight for the game.
"I felt like UTEP was a very deserving champion," said CSU Coach Boyd Grant. "Don Haskins had them ready and they dominated us in every way - on the boards, their team play, defense, all the things that matter in winning basketball games."
Shippen had the hot hand for the Rams early. After not scoring a basket in the first two WAC tournament games, he tanked four 3-pointers in the first half, including one at the buzzer to bring the Rams within five at 36-31. Shippen's basket broke a string of 11 straight UTEP points in the final three minutes of the half. The Rams had taken a 28-25 lead on a basket by Andy Anderson with 3:26 left.
But Stewart hit two foul shots and a 3-pointer after a CSU foul on his second foul shot. Hardaway made consecutive baskets, then hit Stewart for a breakaway layup after stealing the ball from Matt Sharp. Down 36-28, the Rams patiently worked the ball around until Shippen nailed his 3-pointer to beat the buzzer.
For awhile it was a 3-point clinic by both teams. Stewart sank a trey to tie the score at 9-9, only to have Triblehorn make one for CSU. After a basket by Stewart, Hardaway made a 3-pointer to make it 14-12. But Triblehorn came back with a trey to put CSU ahead 15-14. Hardaway sank a foul pitch and then it was Shippen's turn for a 3-pointer. In all there were nine 3-pointers in the first half.
The UTEP guards dominated the first half with Stewart scoring 14 points and Hardaway 12. CSU shot better in the first half 53 percent to 45, but UTEP had a big edge in rebounding 16 to 10 only three turnovers compared to CSU's eight.
To get to the finals, UTEP survived a double-overtime scare against Wyoming 88-81 before blasting New Mexico 89-57 Friday night. CSU had beaten Utah 52-50 the first game and Hawaii 50-46 in the semifinals to arrive in the finals.