When Thursday afternoon's session of the WAC Tournament ended, Wyoming was finally going home. Only after resorting to trick defenses, surviving in regulation and scoring nine straight points in the second overtime did UTEP end the Cowboys' nine-day stay in Utah and advance to the tourney semifinals tonight against rival New Mexico in the Huntsman Center.
After the 88-81 victory, UTEP Coach Don Haskins was a little worn down. "How many overtimes did we play?" he asked, in the middle of his postgame ramblings. It was that kind of day. The Miners trailed by 11 early in the second half, stayed alive when Wyoming's Clauzell Williams missed a winning free throw with four seconds left in regulation and finally pulled ahead when struggling star guard Tim Hardaway made the defensive play of the day.A loss just might have cost the Miners (23-6) an NCAA Tournament shot. "We're just lucky we won," said Haskins.
The Miners recovered by using box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses on Wyoming's Robyn Davis and Reggie Fox. "I never have been much of a gimmick man," said Haskins, a little sheepishly, but the coverage worked. Davis, who played all 50 minutes, scored only eight of his 23 points after halftime, and the Miners worked their way back with 25 points from guard Prince Stewart and 22 from forward Antonio Davis.
Davis' two free throws with 17 seconds left in regulation put the Miners up 67-65, but Williams rebounded, scored and was fouled at the other end. His free throw was long, forcing overtime, and Coach Benny Dees knew the Cowboys had blown their best chance for an upset. "If you had drawn up a script before the game, we'd have taken that very easily," he said.
Williams had a second chance at the end of the first overtime, converting a three-point play after grabbing a loose ball to tie the game with 21 seconds left. Hardaway, who made 6 of 20 shots, fumbled the ball away in traffic on the Miner's last trip, with Stewart eventually missing a three-pointer from the corner at the horn.
On to Overtime No. 2, when Stewart's three-pointer put UTEP ahead by one and Hardaway forced a steal from Davis and drove for a layup. "I was kind of scared," Hardaway admitted later, "because they were calling fouls that were kind of crazy."
Said Davis, "I think it was a foul."
On the next trip, Davis crashed into Stewart away from the ball for a foul. When Stewart made two free throws and Antonio Davis followed with a dunk, the Miners were coasting. No matter what happens the rest of the weekend, they now seem NCAA-bound, while the Cowboys go back to Laramie. They came to Utah last week for the final regular-season games and stayed for the tournament. They also hung around 10 minutes longer than expected in the tournament, as the two-time defending tourney champs entred as the No. 7 seed.
All the Cowboys were missing was a center, somebody like, say, Eric Leckner, the three-time tourney MVP. The Jazz rookie was a visible reminder of Wyoming's past, joining the radio broadcast team. In the end, though, it was Haskins who was saying, "We couldn't match up with them."
The Cowboys made their impact by hitting a tournament-record 11 of 29 three-pointers and frustrating Hardaway, fading only when foul trouble took a tool. By the end, they'd lost Fox, forward Tim Breaux and point guard Kenny Smith to five fouls.
"We just ran out of players," said Dees.