RENO - The eyes of Texas are upon the Miners.
For the second straight year UTEP has advanced to the championship game of the WAC Men's Basketball Tournament after surviving a scare from in-state rival Rice, 85-77, at Lawlor Events Center.
First-year UTEP coach Doc Sadler said Rice played the Miners extremely tough, especially on offense.
"I didn't think they would miss any shots," said Sadler. "They were playing hard and making their shots."
UTEP takes a 26-7 record into today's 6 p.m. game. Rice leaves the tournament at 19-11 and will await word on a possible NIT invitation.
Both teams traded baskets early in the second half as UTEP tried to break loose from Rice. The lead changed hands nine times before reserve forward John Tofi scored five points to give UTEP a 62-59 lead with 9:01 left in the game. Tofi had a free throw and two shots from inside, a short hook and layup giving the Miners a lead it would never relinquish.
Omar Thomas also ignited the Miners' comeback in the second half with 29 points. He sat for eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but in the second half, the senior forward from Philadelphia penetrated the Owls' defense. During one stretch, Thomas scored six points within 43 seconds. When Thomas wasn't working the baseline, he was hitting his jump shots from the perimeter.
Down the stretch, Thomas felt he and point guard Filiberto Rivera had to lead the Miners to the win.
"Down the stretch we needed a bucket or play," Thomas explained.
Rivera directed the Miners' offense and led both teams with 11 assists, one short of the WAC tournament record.
Thomas' play in the second half vindicated his first half performance.
"I was hoping my teammates stepped it up. I felt I let the team down with early fouls," he said.
UTEP needed every point and every assist from Rivera.
Going into the second half, UTEP had a 36-35 lead. Within the first three minutes after intermission, Rice took the lead on two Michael Harris slam dunks and two easy baskets from its transition game.
Sadler also felt UTEP had some difficulty with the Owls.
"The second half started out that we couldn't stop them. Fili, though, was getting the ball to our players so they could score."
That enabled the Miners to stay within striking distance.
UTEP, though, had problems in stopping Rice's Michael Harris, who led the Owls with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
"Great players are hard to stop," Sadler said, adding that Harris was going to dunk the ball over anyone who stood in his way.
Harris began the second half with two consecutive dunks. He virtually carried the Owls on his back with his offensive rebounding and heads up defense.
UTEP's Giovanni St. Amant gave UTEP a quick 9-5 lead in the first half as he swished three consecutive treys from the right corner. St. Amant finished the game with 15 points, and Jason Williams added 10.
As with the second half, the score bounced back and forth between the two WAC rivals, and the score was tied at least five times.
Sadler said Thomas Gehrke stepped up for the Miners when Thomas sat on the bench. He scored six straight points in the final six minutes and hauled down two rebounds.
Sadler felt his team played a good second half, but he promised the Miners would play their best game of the season tonight for the championship and an automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs.
"I'm feeling real good. When we came here I knew we had to win here. You'll see the best game we'll play all year," Sadler said.