UTEP ran past Marshall in the Conference USA tournament quarterfinals on Thursday, despite a slow shooting day from top scorer Randy Culpepper. Culpepper wasted no time letting Tulsa know they weren't going to get the benefit of a similar performance in Friday's semifinal.
The diminutive senior guard drained a three-pointer on the game's opening possession, and scored his team's first seven points, en route to a 26-point, 9-of-16 shooting performance and a 66-54 UTEP victory that earned the Miners a spot in Saturday's Conference USA championship game in front of the home fans in El Paso.
Despite Culpepper's early heroics, it was actually Tulsa who went into the halftime break with a 28-27 lead, behind 11 first-half points from Justin Hurtt. Hurtt's 11 points came on four straight made jumpers, which turned an 11-7 deficit into an 18-16 advantage for the Golden Hurricane.
But in the second half, UTEP put the clamps on Hurtt, and the offense worked itself into a rhythm. From 14:09 to 5:14 left in regulation, Tulsa did not make a field goal, a critical stretch which saw a neck-and-neck battle turn into a convincing Miner triumph.
A number of players for UTEP played their roles well around Culpepper's star performance. Jeremy Williams made a huge contribution on the defensive end, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking four shots. Christian Polk had an efficient offensive performance, putting in 13 points on just eight field goal attempts. And Julyan Stone flirted with a triple double without actually achieving a single double, ending up with 9 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists.
The Miners will learn the identity of their championship game opponent tonight when upstart East Carolina faces off with Memphis in the tournament's other semifinal. Meanwhile, Tulsa will hope that an impressive finish to their season will be enough to partially cancel out a dreadful start, and get them into a lesser post-season tournament.