Knowing I’d miss dinner tonight, one of my daughters slipped a Starburst fruit chew into my coat pocket before I headed downtown to the arena. As sweet as the gesture was, I never should have eaten that candy.
It was orange.
The Tigers’ much-talked-about winning streak in Conference USA play came to an end at the hands of the Miners. This was the first such loss in the careers of seniors Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Pierre Henderson-Niles. (Out of character, Mack wouldn’t even talk with the media after the game.) And it was the fifth consecutive home loss the Tigers have suffered at the hands of a team wearing orange. (Though they handled Houston Baptist on January 3rd.)
They may have been wearing orange, but it was a contingent of Memphis friends who pulled off this upset, if it can be called such. UTEP guard Randy Culpepper scored 13 points and Jeremy Williams added 18 points and 12 rebounds to steal the show in their hometown. Miner coach Tony Barbee (a longtime assistant to John Calipari at Memphis) employed a bench that outscored the Tiger reserves 33-10, with Christian Polk draining three of five three-point attempts.
Down 70-67, Memphis had a chance to tie the game with less than 10 seconds to play, but a pass from Kemp was too hot for Mack to handle, the ball landing in the third row, opposite the Tiger bench. The miscue was one of five turnovers by the home team in the last five minutes.
Sophomore guard Elliot Williams led Memphis with 23 points, including four treys. “This was a tough one,” he said after the game. “We just didn’t get stops, didn’t make the offensive plays at the end. We had the effort. We struggled to get into our plays. It’s a tough conference. We just have to bounce back.”
UTEP shot 67 percent in the second half and hit four of five from behind the three-point stripe. There were no fewer than five lead changes over a 90-second stretch midway through the second half, highlighted by a four-point play from Williams. But when Jeremy Williams hit a three-pointer to give UTEP a 63-56 lead with six minutes to play, the margin was enough to secure the first win over Memphis in C-USA play since UAB pulled off the feat on March 2, 2006.
“I was proud of our young men,” said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after the game. “They competed, they left it all on the floor. You gotta give total credit to UTEP. They hit some big shots.
“Bottom line, we missed a lot of layups, and that comes back to bite you in the rear. We missed [eight] free throws. At the end, we had our best ball handlers handling the ball . . . we just didn’t convert. That’s the way the game goes. I told our guys we have to stay positive; it’s a long season in terms of the conference race.”
Memphis (13-5) and UTEP (12-5) are now tied at 3-1 in league play, with the Tigers next hosting Houston (already winners over the Miners) on Saturday night.