Loss to UTEP dashes tournament hopes for men’s basketball

Houston’s hopes for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament were stolen at Texas-El Paso in its regular season finale. The Cougars’ 87-81 loss against the Miners on Sunday dropped the Cougars to 22-8 on the season, with an 11-5 record in Conference USA.

The loss also magnifies a crucial problem the Cougars have not been able to fix as the season dwindled down – winning against quality and mediocre teams on the road.

Houston dropped four of its final eight games of the regular season. The Cougars suffered key conference losses to teams such as Alabama-Birmingham and Memphis, games they realistically could have afforded to lose to without hurting their at-large NCAA tournament bid hopes.

But losing two of their final three games against C-USA opponents East Carolina and UTEP could end up being the equivalent of a perfectly placed kidney shot by given by Mike Tyson in his prime – a crippling show stopper.

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee won’t care if ECU and UTEP are young, athletic teams that have provided serious matchup problems for the Cougars in the past and that winning on their courts is easier said than done.

The Pirates are 11-18, with a 5-11 conference record, while UTEP is the 125th team in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings.

Houston head coach Tom Penders said before his team made the trip to El Paso that containing guard Stefon Jackson would be a priority for his squad. The 6-4 junior was having none of it. He lit up the Cougars for a team-high 28 points while shooting a high percent from the field (64 percent), hitting 11-of-17 attempts from the floor.

The Cougars’ leading scorer for the season, senior guard Robert "Fluff" McKiver went above his average of 23.1 points per game, as he drained 5-of-11 shots from 3-point range and went a perfect 8-for-8 at the free-throw line.

The Cougars actually held an 80-76 lead following a pair of free-throw attempts by senior guard Lanny Smith with 2:58 remaining, but the Miners would use a Randy Culpepper 3-pointer to spark an 11-1 run, closing out the game and snapping a three-game losing streak.

UTEP improved to 17-12 on the season (8-8 C-USA).

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