By Jerry Briggs
For The JB Replay
With the UTSA Roadrunners moving to the American Athletic Conference next season and the UTEP Miners staying in Conference USA, a possibility loomed that Saturday’s men’s basketball matchup between the in-state rivals might be the last one for awhile.
If it was, the Miners seized bragging rights with a strong second half and a 77-66 C-USA road victory at the Convocation Center. In doing so, UTEP ended one losing streak (its own, of four games) and extended another (UTSA’s, now 11 games.)
The Miners took control midway through the second half on the strength of a run powered by reserve forward Jon Dos Anjos.
The 6-foot-8 Brazilian hit two long three-pointers and added a dunk after his own offensive rebound — all in a span of 67 seconds.
After Dos Anjos retrieved a missed free throw and threw down an emphatic jam, the Miners increased their lead to 11 with 9:23 remaining.
The Roadrunners, who haven’t won since Jan. 5, seemed deflated after the play. They never were able to pull any closer than nine the rest of the way.
A check of the record books indicated that UTEP has won five in a row against UTSA and leads the series 16-10, including 2-0 this year.
Will the two teams play on, even after they go their own separate ways in conference affiliation? UTEP coach Joe Golding said he’d “definitely” be open to keeping the rivalry alive.
“We’re disappointed that you guys are leaving,” Golding said. “But I think there are some good rivalries here (in the C-USA). Obviously this is one that’s really important. It’s been played for a long time, so, maybe it’s something (UTSA coach) Steve (Henson) and I could talk about after the year.
“Obviously, it makes sense. It’s easy to get here. It’s an hour and ten minute flight. I think it’d be good to keep it going.”
Curiously, Dos Anjos seemingly has been able to cast a spell over the Roadrunners, and he’s done it twice this year.
On Jan. 11 in El Paso, the transfer from Florida Southwestern College came off the bench to score 10 points in 12 minutes of a 69-57 victory over UTSA. On Saturday afternoon, he scored 12 points in 19 minutes.
“He hasn’t showed up any other time of the year, man,” Golding said. “But he did it at our place (against the Roadrunners) and he did it again tonight.”
Early in the game, UTSA players seemed out of sorts, like they weren’t quite ready for the physical struggle that awaited them.
Throwing some soft passes, the Roadrunners had eight turnovers in the opening minutes. After that, UTEP dominated on the glass and continued the assault for 40 minutes. The Miners finished with a 44-24 edge in rebounds, including 16-2 on the offensive end.
Henson, seated in the UTSA interview room afterward, glanced at a box score and said that taking care of possessions and competing for rebounds were two areas that had been disccussed in practice as keys to winning the game.
“The turnovers, disappointed with those, but more so with the rebounding,” Henson said. “That’s just absolutely focus and effort. It just wasn’t good enough. They got way too many offensive rebounds. We didn’t get nearly enough.”
Almost as surprising as UTEP’s wide margin in controlling the boards was its slight edge in three-point shooting.
The Miners, who make about 28 percent of their shots behind the arc, hit eight of 19 threes for 42 percent. On the flip side, it’s mystifying how the Roadrunners can make only six of 22, for 27 percent, on a home court where they practiced four times earlier this week.
Some of UTSA’s deficiency in that area may stem from its own lack of offensive rebounding, which tends to lend itself to quick pitchouts for open shots. Henson credited UTSA’s long-distance shooting woes to UTEP’s defensive style.
“I think part of it is, they just do a good job of chasing guys off the line,” Henson said. “They force your hand a little bit. If you do get some penetration, they’re going to come over and help. They do skip it out and chase you off the three-point line.”
Historically, it’s just been a bad stretch for the Roadrunners.
The losing streak started on Jan. 7 with a 10-point home loss to Western Kentucky. It continued through last week, with a seven-point setback to the same WKU team on Feb. 2 and then a 24-point loss Feb. 4 at Middle Tennessee State.
Now the streak stands at 11, two more than the previous record nine-game skid that the team suffered near the end of the 2015-16 season.
“We needed this one bad,” Henson said. “Guys have done a pretty good job of hanging in there. It’ll be a tough bounce back here on Monday, and now (we’ll have to) see how our guys respond.
“Losing wears on a team,” the coach continued. “We’ve talked about it a lot (that) this is maybe the group with the most character and leadership that I’ve ever been around. But still, it’s just, like, continuing to get beat down.
“It’s going to be hard to keep this group pumped up without getting that win at some point.”
With the talent on the Roadrunners, it’s apparent nearly four months into the season that room for error is ever-so-slim, and a strong, focused effort is required every night.
“This game spells it out,” Henson said. “It was an effort battle here. Yeah, we didn’t shoot it well. That’s fair. That’s frustrating, when we got our good shooters not shooting it well.
“But we can’t get out-rebounded like that. We can’t turn the ball over like that. It’s just putting yourselves in an impossible situation … giving them so many more shots at the basket, just because they’re rebounding it.”
UTEP 12-13, 5-9
UTSA 7-19, 1-14
UTSA at Rice, Feb. 16, 7 p.m.
UAB at UTSA, Feb. 18, 3 p.m.
UTEP — Tae Hardy, 12 points and five assists. Jon Dos Anjos, 12 points, five rebounds. Malik Zachery, 11 points on four of five shooting. Ze’rik Onyema, 10 points and nine rebounds. On three of five shooting. Otis Frazier III, 10 points. Calvin Solomon, eight points, eight rebounds, three on offensive glass.
UTSA — Japhet Medor, 20 points, four assists. Also, five for seven from the field and 10 for 10 at the free throw line. Jacob Germany, 14 points, seven rebounds. Christian Tucker, 11 points, three assists, two rebounds.