The matchup between the 6-0 Colorado State Rams and the 4-1 UTEP Miners proved to be a good regular season game between two mid-major teams that have a chance to be competing in the NCAA Tournament come March. After a first half full of runs in which Colorado State led by as much as 15, the second half was a back and forth contest which saw the Rams win a nail-biter.
Colorado State had a few days off after winning the Great Alaska Shootout, while UTEP returned to action after losing a 68-65 nail-biter to the Washington Huskies in the Wooden Legacy championship game. With the Miners ranked at 34 in RPI and the Rams ranked at 41, this game has the potential to be a quality win for Colorado State, something that all mid-major bubble teams need.
The first five minutes of the game saw poor shooting and a tied ball game at 5-5. Colorado State then went on a 28-16 run over the next 12 minutes to get the score to 33-21 before UTEP got back on track around the three minute mark. Colorado State went on to turn the ball over six times over the final three minutes of the first half as the Miners were able to go on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to five points at 33-28 at the midway point of the game.
The Miners were led by center Matt Willms and forward Cedrick Lang in first half with seven points each. Between the two, Willms and Lang got to the free throw line nine times and made six of those shots. The Rams were led by guard Gian Clavell who came off the bench and provided a spark for the Rams with ten first half points.
The second half consisted of back and forth basketball between Colorado State and UTEP. UTEP brought the score to 41-40 and only a one point deficit near the 13 minute mark, however, the Rams were able to keep the lead for the remainder of the game.
Like the majority of Colorado State basketball games this season, the officials found a way to turn this game into a free throw shooting contest. The Rams got into the double bonus at the 11:58 mark of the second half, and the Miners reached that mark only a couple minutes later. Neither team was able to take advantage of the fact that the referees were calling a lot of fouls. The Miners shot 6-13 from the charity stripe in the second half, good for just over 50 percent. The Rams didn't fare a whole lot better. After shooting (and missing) only one free throw in the first half, the Rams shot 10-17 from the free throw line, for just over 55 percent shooting.
The turning point of the game came with just under a minute left in the second half. UTEP's Earvin Morris drove to the rim and made a layup, getting fouled by Colorado State's Joe De Ciman in the process. Morris' basket made the game a three point game at 65-62 with the Rams struggling on offense. Morris would then miss the free throw, but Miner forward Vince Hunter was there to get the offensive board and a routine put back attempt. Hunter's layup instead hit the side of the rim and bounced back down to the floor, where Colorado State's Stanton Kidd hit the ball off of Hunter's leg and the Rams got possession with 52 seconds left and the Miners were unable to cut deeper into the Ram's lead.
On the next possession, the Rams ran the clock down as much as possible before Kidd put up a three point attempt which hit off of the rim and bounced to UTEP's Willms with 18 seconds left. With the Rams up by three and in the double bonus, I expected the Rams to foul with only a few seconds left on the clock. Instead, coach Larry Eustachy had his Rams play tough defense and forced UTEP's C.J. Cooper to put up a difficult three point shot with no time left on the clock. The shot bounced off the front of the rim as time expired, giving the Rams the 65-62 win.
Colorado State's J.J. Avila is continuing his hot streak as the Ram's leading scorer. Avila led all players with 20 points and nine rebounds. Stanton Kidd has proved to be one of the better newcomers to the Mountain West Conference as he put together another efficient game with 15 points and eight rebounds. The only other Ram in double digits was Clavell, who added only three points to his first half total to give him 13 on the night. The Miners were led by guard Julian Washburn, who scored ten second half points to lead UTEP with 16 points. The Miners big man combo of Willms and Lang only combined for ten second half points, as Lang got into foul trouble and eventually fouled out.
With the win, Colorado State moves to 7-0 on the season, the first time in Colorado State history that the basketball team has started off the season with seven consecutive wins. Coach Eustachy also got a win over a good friend in Miner's coach Tim Floyd. Eustachy was an assistant for Floyd when they both were at Idaho during the 1986-87 season and now Eustachy's son, Evan, is currently on Floyd's staff at UTEP.
Up next for the Rams is an in-state matchup with the Northern Colorado Bears on Sunday, December 7th. Northern Colorado is 4-2 on the season and has some familiarity with the Rams, with starting guard Dwight Smith being a former Colorado State player. The game will be at Moby Arena in Fort Collins, with tip off at Noon MST. The game can be seen on Root Sports Rocky Mountain.