John Royal Adam Brown prepares to make his move
"I'm disappointed because we had probably our biggest crowd of the year," Cougars coach James Dickey said after the game. "I think they really like this team. And I'm sorry that we didn't win for them, and our players."
The Cougars didn't lose this game for lack of an effort. Or a lack of talent. UTEP was bigger, more talented and way more physical than the smaller Cougars, but the Miners were never able to pull away from a tenacious Cougar team that put on a defensive clinic that held the usually high-scoring Miners to just 57 points on 35.7 percent shooting.
But the little things doomed the Cougars on this night. Little things like being out-rebounded 43-21 and being out-shot from the foul line 22 to 10. And little things like the near-utter inability of anybody but Adam Brown to make a basket in the second half (Brown scored 15 of the team's 23 second-half points).
Yet despite all of these little things, the Cougars had the 29-28 halftime lead and were leading 50-49 with 3:04 left in the game. Then the Cougars went into a deep freeze from which they could not recover as they did not score again until a Brown lay-up with just under a second left in the game.
"They won the game," Brown said. "Again, I'm not taking nothing from UTEP. They're a great team. They got the 'W.' But I put the loss on us. I think...Kendrick [Washington] said something like teams don't beat us, we beat ourselves. Plays like that [the rebound] is a perfect example of that."
That rebound, or Rebound, happened with about 45 seconds left in the game and UTEP clinging to a one-point 51-50 lead. The Cougar defense, which had stifled the UTEP offense much of the night, stifled them once more, and forced UTEP's stud scorer Randy Culpepper to put up a poor shot.
The Cougars couldn't grab the rebound and UTEP worked the down to 19 seconds before Julyan Stone hit a three-pointer to make it 54-50. And from that, the Cougars never recovered.
"That was my fault on that," Cougars junior guard Darian Thibodeaux said of the rebound. "I didn't box out. I turned around to try to see where the ball was going to land instead of following my man or going to it."
But while that play was the ultimate dagger to the heart of the Cougars, that they were even in the game was itself rather remarkable. The big men were nearly invisible for the Cougars on the night with Maurice McNeil, Kendrick Washington and Alandise Harris shooting only a combined five of 13 from the floor. And sophomore forward Kirk Van Slyke, who scored 12 points, got only one bucket from inside, and he failed to score in the second half.
"Earlier in the year, that was one of the things that plagued the team," Brown said. "They were saying we were soft, soft down low. We didn't have any size. Lately that hasn't been the case. We've been playing a lot bigger than our size down there, but today, they came out aggressive. So, again, give credit to UTEP."
John Royal Trying to figure out how to handle that UTEP defense
"We did a great job [defensively], but it was only 90 percent of the job," Brown said. "Coach always says complement your defense with the rebounding. We didn't do that today."
"They got 12 extra points off of those rebounds," Brown continued. "So they just didn't rebound, they scored off of them. They made us pay for them. It was our mistakes with their execution."
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The loss dropped the Cougars to 11-7 (3-2 in conference). The loss also broke a three-game win streak for the team at a time when the team was attempting to build momentum going into the heart of conference play. But while disappointed in the loss, Coach Dickey likes what he sees from his team.
"I know that our guys will compete. I know that," he said. "And I know we can play really good defense. I told them before the game that they're really becoming a very good defensive team. We've got to hang our hat on that."
And there's one other thing that's been learned. Defense, as Dickey has said, will give the Cougars a chance to win each game. But every now and then, they're going to have to grab a few more rebounds and hit a few more shots.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Cougars next play on Wednesday night when they make the short journey to Tudor Fieldhouse to take on the Rice Owls at 8 p.m. The Owls (9-10, 1-4 in C-USA) are coming off of their first conference win, having defeated UCF on Saturday night....Kirk Van Slyke, despite not scoring in the second half, was the team's second leading scorer behind Brown. No other Cougar finished in double digits....The Cougars' next home game is on February 1 when they host Marshall....The Cougars are one home win from reaching double-digit victories at Hofheinz for the seventh straight season.