UTEP did what it had to do Saturday afternoon -- took a home game and stuffed it into the win column.
The Miners solved the early puzzle of SMU's zone defenses, forced the Mustangs into a man-to-man and steadily pulled away ... taking a 63-54 Conference USA victory in front of 8,154 fans in the Don Haskins Center.
SMU came out in a very active 1-3-1 zone, mixed in some 2-3 zone that forced the Miners to use much of the shot clock on their opening possessions. But Jacques Streeter bombed home 5-of-5 3-pointers in that first half and the Miners gradually picked the zones apart as they romped away to a 35-21 halftime cushion.
UTEP is now 10-7 on the season and, more importantly, the Miners protected their home court with a win, improving to 3-1 in Conference USA play. The Mustangs dipped to 11-9 overall and 1-4 in league play.
This one was not quite as close as the final score might indicate. UTEP expanded its halftime lead to 17 on a couple of occasions -- once when Konner Tucker rained home a 3-ball to make it 42-25 with 16:30 to play, and yet again when Cedrick Lang banked in a layup off a rebound, making it 45-28 with 14:12 to go. UTEP led by 16, 55-39, with just over six minutes to play. It got a little ugly down the stretch ... with fouls flying and the clock stopping and all rhythm and flow to the game gone into the desert afternoon air.
"It wasn't a very pretty second half," UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. "Not a whole lot of flow. We tried to speed the tempo up in the first half, using a full-court press. But the key to our victory today was our backcourt -- Jacques Streeter and Konner Tucker. They made shots, they took care of the ball, they allowed us to play at the pace we wanted and they did a good job at the 10-second line defensively."
Streeter got into one of those proverbial zones against the Mustang zones, knocking down everything from 3-ball land. He finished with 18 points. Tucker had 12 points. Cedrick Lang played his usual physical role inside, setting screens, playing defense, scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds.
Julian Washburn had a poor shooting day, making just 3-of-11 shots, but he had a career high six assists and played his usual leather-tough defense. His brother Chris Washburn came off the bench to add eight points, four rebounds in 14 minutes. McKenzie Moore had something of a quiet game with six points and six rebounds.
"I think we played pretty well," Lang said. "We've still got some things to work on offensively. But, I thought we defended pretty well. I don't know what the rebound totals were (almost even, SMU leading 28-26), but I felt we rebounded OK. The main thing is we won. You don't want to lose at home in conference play."
Streeter, who recently went over the 500-assist mark for his career, smiled and said, "In the first half it felt like the rim was bigger than usual. Everything went down. Early on our offense was a little stagnant against their zones. But, we figured out where to go and how to attack it and forced them out of the zones and into man-to-man and that changed everything."
From a statistical standpoint, the Miners did have another good defensive outing. They held the Ponies to just 40.9 percent shooting for the game, held them to just 54 points. The Miners also had nine steals (though that sometimes has nothing to do with good defense) and forced 20 Mustang turnovers.
"I thought overall we played very good defense as a team," Julian Washburn said. "We rebounded OK. We did a better job guarding the screen and roll. We still need to do a better job executing plays. I felt we did a pretty good job breaking down their zone defense ... forced them to go to man-to-man. But the real key was Jacques. He was amazing in the first half. Jacques made everything and he was very aggressive, and if he keeps that up, I think he can be the best player in the conference."
To their credit, the young Mustang team kept coming. They scrambled and fought. Shawn Williams had 16 points, Jalen Jones 15 and Nick Russell 12. They kept chasing and chasing and the Miners went a span of more than nine minutes without a field goal -- from the 12:43 mark when Julian Washburn hit a short jumper until the 3:09 mark when Lang hit a short jumper.
But, even though the lead was shrinking a bit, the Miners never truly got in trouble because they were defending well and dropping in plenty of free throws during the disjointed run. That final nine-point deficit was as close as SMU would ever get.
"Chris Washburn was able to get some minutes," Floyd said. "Cedrick Lang rebounded the ball well for us."
UTEP has Wednesday off this week and will next play at East Carolina on Saturday night. But, on this sun-splashed Saturday afternoon, the Miners got what they needed -- a home-court victory.
Bill Knight may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6171. Follow him on Twitter @BillKnightept