EL PASO, Texas (AP) Vince Hunter scored 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in Friday’s season opener and UTEP beat Washington state 65-52, ruining coach Ernie Kent’s return to the court.
Kent was away from college basketball the past four years after stints as head coach at St. Mary’s and Oregon.
”Outside the loss, it feels great,” Kent said of returning to coaching. ”We’re a young team, and we need to learn (from this game). We battled hard, but we got sloppy.”
That had a lot to do with the Miners, who enjoyed a big height advantage that allowed them to control play.
”That was as good as we’ve been since I’ve been here going to the boards,” said fifth-year UTEP head coach Tim Floyd. ”That had a lot to do with Vince Hunter. He was very impactful in the game.”
Hunter deflected praise.
”I was just trying to focus on going in on the offensive and defensive glass,” he said. ”But it wasn’t just me. It was all of those guys. A lot of times they did the work and the ball just fell into my hands. Pretty much all the bigs focused on rebounding.
”We’ll take credit for that on the offensive rebounds, the second-chance shots. It shows how much talent we have.”
Earvin Morris scored 13 for the Miners, including two 3-pointers, and C.J. Cooper added 11 points and five assists.
DaVonte Lacy led the Cougars with 15 points and seven rebounds, Que Johnson scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Ike Iroegbu added 10 points.
After cutting what had been a double-figure UTEP lead to just six, 32-26, at halftime, the Cougars spent most of the second half trying to stay with the Miners.
An 8-4 spurt for Washington State fueled by two 3-pointers by Johnson, helped trim a UTEP lead that had grown to 13 points at 29-16 with just over 2 minutes remaining in the opening half.
But that was the only time Washington State’s small lineup consistently caused the Miners trouble. UTEP was too strong at both ends of the court and led by double figures all but a few moments of the game’s final 7 minutes.
That was thanks in large part to a 46-37 rebounding advantage for the Miners, which included a 17-7 edge in offensive rebounds that led to easy second-chance points.
”We didn’t do well (rebounding),” Kent said. ”We gave up 17 offensive rebounds, which led to 18 second-chance points for them.”
”But defense wasn’t our problem. We missed a lot of open shots.”
That included Lacy, who was the focus of UTEP’s defensive plan. The senior still was able to finish in double figures after hitting on 7 of 8 attempts from the free-throw line, but he was 3 of 12 from the field.
UTEP also forced Washington State into 22 turnovers, collected 11 steals and blocked seven shots.
”Our length is still bothering people,” Floyd said. ”We can contest and challenge shots.”
Washington State: The Cougars have three starters and nine lettermen back from last year’s team, which went 10-21 and 3-15 in Pac-12 play. Lacy was Washington State’s leading scorer last year, but he was held below his 19.4 point average from a year ago.
UTEP: The Miners appeared primed for a big season with four returning starters, including Hunter, who was the Conference USA Freshman of the Year last season. UTEP received one vote in the AP preseason Top 25 poll. UTEP leads the all-time series between the teams 3-2.
Washington State visits TCU on Monday.
UTEP hosts New Mexico State on Saturday Nov. 22.
HOT AT HASKINS CENTER
UTEP is 68-26 in home openers and an impressive 33-4 in home openers at the Don Haskins Center.