Nevada, UTEP to play for first place

RENO - First place will be at stake tonight when Nevada (4-0, 11-3) hosts UTEP (13-2, 3-0) in a huge Western Athletic Conference basketball game.

Tip-off is set for 7:05 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center.

Both teams are in the middle of impressive winning streaks. Nevada has won seven straight, including conference road wins at Louisiana Tech and SMU, and UTEP has reeled off nine straight triumphs.

UTEP is a team that returns four of its top six players from a year ago - forwards Omar Thomas (19.9) and Jason Williams (13.9), point guard Fili Rivera (11.3) and center John Tofi (4.3) - which is a big reason why the Miners were the preseason pick by the coaches and media to win the WAC title.

"UTEP is a great team," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "That's why they were a unanimous pick to win the league. I don't think they've done anything to change that.

"They return their top three guns from last year (Omar Thomas, Jason Williams and Fili Rivera), and we return our fourth and fifth top guns (Nick Fazekas and Kevinn Pinkney), so they are much further along than we are. (Fili) Rivera is a great player. Omar Thomas is a great player and (Jason) Williams is a great player. We'll have our hands full no doubt about that."

Indeed. The Miners have scored 91, 96 and 105 points in their last three wins over Boise State, Rice and Tulsa. UTEP has been successful with its up-tempo style of play, and Doc Sadler feels the key to victory tonight is transition offense.

"Most of the time when you go on the road you want to slow the tempo down," Sadler said at his weekly Monday press conference. "I think if we do that (tonight), we'll be in trouble. We're going to have to play aggressive as we ever have offensively, but not at the expense of turning the ball over. If the game is in the 50s, they're probably going to win. And if it's in the 70s, I think we have a chance."

No doubt it will be the stiffest test of the season for Nevada's defense, which is holding teams to 59.9 points and a 37.1 percentage from the floor this season. During its seven-game win streak, Nevada has won the rebounding battle in each game and held opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field in six of the seven games.

UTEP has multiple weapons inside and outside. Thomas (54 percent) and Williams (50 percent) give the Miners good inside presence. The Miners can also shoot the three ball, as reserve Miguel Ayala is hitting 45.3 of his attempts followed by shooting guard Giovanni St. Amant's 40.5 percent and Rivera at 39 percent.

While Rivera isn't a huge scorer, he's the glue to the team. Fox is one of his biggest fans.

"Number one, the guy never turns the ball over (19 times in 12 games)," Fox said. "They seldom have a bad possession with him at the point. He is able to play a lot of minutes, he's extremely experienced and he shoots the ball well. He's a great foul shooter; almost 90 percent.

"He probably has 20 turnovers (actually 19) on the year. That's phenomenal. He really runs the team well. I think he's terrific."

While UTEP has enjoyed success with its racehorse style of play, Nevada's strength is its inside tandem of Nick Fazekas (19.9) and Kevinn Pinkney (12.8). The Wolf Pack's half-court game has been solid.

Sadler believes slowing down Pinkney and Fazekas will be a huge key if the Miners are going to beat Nevada for the first time at Lawlor. Sadler said earlier in the week that he considers the Nevada duo the best tandem on the West Coast.

Part of UTEP's strategy will be making sure Nevada has a difficult time passing the ball inside, which means freshman point guard Ramon Sessions and off guard Kyle Shiloh must make smart decisions and not force the issue.

"We're going to try and guard the perimeter as hard as we can and make it more difficult to pass (inside)," Sadler said.

Hawai'i had tremendous success with that strategy for most of its 58-55 loss to Nevada back on Jan. 1. The Rainbow Warriors forced Nevada into 23 turnovers, but were out-rebounded by a wide margin.

Sadler said offensive and defensive rebounding also will be keys to victory. The Miners have to keep Fazekas, Pinkney and Jermaine Washington, an underrated player in Sadler's eyes, off both backboards.

Notes: Nevada has won 22 of its last 23 games at Lawlor Events Center. It's only home loss this year was to UOP ... As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, the parking lots near and around the University of Nevada's Lawlor Events Center have been cleared of snow and both parking garages are accessible to fans attending tonight's game.

Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1281.

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