GAME NOTES: First place in the Conference USA standings is on the line tonight, as the Texas-El Paso Miners host the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at the Don Haskins Center.
Louisiana Tech comes in having won nine of its last 10 bouts, including a pair of 20-point wins over Charlotte (80-60) and Marshall (98-77) last week. Tonight's contest is the first of two straight road games for the Bulldogs, who are currently tied with Southern Miss atop the C-USA pecking order, with UTEP just a half-game back.
UTEP has put together a similar run with victories in nine of its last 11 outings, the most recent of which being an 81-62 triumph over UTSA last Saturday. A victory tonight would be the Miners' fifth straight in league play, matching their second-longest streak since joining the conference.
UTEP has won five of the last six meetings with LaTech, and leads the all-time series, 8-7.
Louisiana Tech has played its last five games without leading scorer Raheem Appleby (16.1 ppg) due to a badly sprained ankle that is expected to keep him out of action for two months. And in last Saturday's game against Marshall, two Bulldogs needed IVs to finish. One of those players was reigning C-USA Player of the Week Kenneth Smith, who racked up a season-high 17 points, 13 assists and six steals with only one turnover. Conversely, the Bulldogs forced Marshall into 22 turnovers. It was the second consecutive game with 13 assists for the junior point guard, as he is averaging a league-best 10 assists per game in conference play and he ranks third nationally with 7.4 apg on the season. Along with Smith, sophomore guard Alex Hamilton (15.8 ppg) and senior forward Chris Anderson (10.7 ppg) also average double figures for a deep Louisiana Tech team that leads the league and ranks seventh in the country in scoring offense (84.9 ppg)
The biggest challenge facing Tech in this matchup is UTEP's length, as the team boasts four starters who stand 6-foot-8 or taller. The Miners have utilized their size advantage well and rank second in the league in scoring defense (64.2) and first in field goal percentage defense (.379). They have held up strong despite the midseason dismissal of three players, including top scorer McKenzie Moore. UTEP has gone 5-1 since that trio was kicked off the team for gambling on athletic events, despite not scoring more than 68 points in any of those games. John Bohannon has been a steady force and is averaging a double-double in conference play (14.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg). Vince Hunter (13.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg in C-USA) has led the team in scoring three of the last four games, although it was Julian Washburn with a team-best 19 points in the win over UTSA.
So far, injuries have not slowed either of these teams. Smith will try to push the tempo for LaTech, while Bohannon and company will try to dominate the paint for UTEP. The Miners may be a slight underdog here, but they'll have the crowd on their side as well as a chance to take over the conference lead.
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