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Middle school basketball coach uses UTEP team as example to follow

A roller-coaster season had the UTEP men's basketball team finally seeing stars. The Miners have been on fire for about six weeks before heading into Thursday’s game.

A UTEP student and middle school basketball coach took some of his young players to the game after the major turnaround the team has had.

“I talk to them a lot about adversity and having to come back when you're down and out,” Raul Saenz said. “That's exactly what I want them to see, seeing a team that's not doing so well making a fight and making a run at the conference."

The winner of the game gets third place and a bye in next week's Conference USA tournament.

UTEP and Old Dominion will lay it all on the line Thursday with the winner securing the no. 3 seed in next week’s Conference USA Tournament. Tip-off is at 6 p.m.

The Miners (13-15, 11-5 C-USA) have won five straight games and 11 of 13. Old Dominion (18-10, 11-5 C-USA) has won four in a row (all by at least 14 points) and seven of its last nine.

The turnaround has fans thinking the Miners could win the tournament next week.

Discounted ticket prices are in effect for Thursday’s game and Saturday’s regular season finale against Charlotte (1 p.m.). Tickets are only $8 and $10 in all sections except Gold. These tickets are ordinarily as much as $26. The ticket center number is 915-747-5234.

“It ought to be a great atmosphere in here on Thursday,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We’ve got a very physical team that is playing so well coming here. They hammered us last year. They just won by 20 at UAB [on Feb. 11]. It will be a supreme test for our guys. I’m glad that we’re playing them at a time when we’ve got some confidence, because we are playing well right now.”

Old Dominion leads C-USA in scoring defense (60.6 ppg), field goal percentage defense (.397) and rebound margin (+6.0). ODU is fourth in the country in scoring defense. The Monarchs are led by a trio of sophomores – guard Ahmad Caver (13.6 ppg), forward Zoran Talley (11.6 ppg) and guard B.J. Stith (20.6 ppg). Junior forward Brandan Stith is averaging 10.1 ppg. Taylor and Brandan Stith rank 1-2 in Conference USA in offensive rebounds, averaging 3.6 and 2.6 respectively.

The game matches two teams that have always been stout defensively, but have only recently found themselves offensively. UTEP has scored at least 77 points in four of its last five games; during that span the Miners are shooting 53.6 percent from the field and 49.4 percent from three-point range. Old Dominion is averaging 77 ppg during its four-game win streak and shot 66 percent at UAB.

The game also pits two of the winningest coaches in the country against one another. Floyd has 463 victories and ODU’s Jeff Jones has 445.

UTEP needs one win to wrap up a C-USA Tournament bye, and if it comes against Old Dominion the Miners would be on the opposite side of the bracket as league champ Middle Tennessee when the event tips off on March 8 in Birmingham.

“You have no way of controlling who you’re going to play, and we know that whoever we play is going to be a team that’s capable of beating us,” Floyd said. “But you want to go in with as much confidence as you can and the important thing is that you’re getting a bye and not having to play the first day, and only needing to have three wins to get to the NCAA Tournament versus four. We don’t have great depth. And as a result, I think playing three games is much more advantageous for us.”

The Miners are 6-1 in conference home games this season, and 22-2 in their last 24. They’ll try to make it 23-2 on Thursday, and coach Floyd campaigned for a large crowd in the DHC to aid the fight.

“These kids are playing their hearts out,” he said. “No team in this country has been through more adversity and is playing better than we are at this point of the season. I think our fans would be proud of these kids and the spirit that they have brought to themselves. They are a fun group right now, and they have been fun in the locker room after these wins.”

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