Utes two-step past UTEP

By and

Updated 3/19 @ 10:46 p.m.

It wasn’t the Big Dance, but the Runnin’ Utes still managed to showcase their postseason moves as they two-stepped their way past UTEP in the opening round of the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.

Luke Nevill scored 16 points, hauled in 12 rebounds and managed four assists as Utah beat the Miners 81-69, in El Paso, Texas, to hand UTEP just their third home loss of the season on Wednesday night.

With the win, the Utes earned the right to face the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the second round.

“We’ve got another game to learn from and analyze,” Boylen said. “That’s what this tournament is about and that’s why I’m thankful to play in it.”

Utah jumped out to an early 9-0 lead and never trailed as Boylen received his first taste of postseason success with the Utes.

“It’s a big step for these guys,” Boylen said.

While Utah’s double-digit margin of victory suggests an easy win, it was anything but a cake walk down the stretch for Utah.

Utah controlled the game from the paint early, but with a little more than nine minutes remaining and the Utes holding a 21-point lead, the home team decided to enforce its will from the perimeter. The Miners’ quickness and pressure enabled them to cut Utah’s 59-38 lead to 11 in about 2 1/2 minutes.

The wave of pressure continued as UTEP managed to get every call, and subsequently every ounce of momentum, with their full-court press. Stefon Jackson’s 3-point shot with 1:49 remaining cut Utah’s double-digit lead to eight. The Miner star finished with 20 points.

“We knew they were a team that was capable of making a run,” Utah senior guard Johnnie Bryant said. “We just wanted to weather the storm. In the past sometimes we’ve collapsed, but we held strong tonight.”

Utah managed to fight off UTEP long enough to allow the Ute guards to secure the win. Bryant hit all four of his late-game free throws and the Utes went 11-for-12 from the free-throw line with less than three minutes remaining to ice the victory.

“You have to be mature,” Bryant said, who extended his college career for at least one more game. “You have to be mentally tough on the road.”

Bryant finished with a team-high 17 points.

Guard Tyler Kepkay had a resurgent effort in what could have his last game of the season since transferring to Division-I basketball this year. A driving layup and the free throw that followed with less than four minutes remaining and Utah’s lead cut to 67-55, typified the junior’s night. Kepkay finished with nine points and four assists to help the Utes become one of eight teams to advance to the CBI second round.

“I thought Kepkay played one of his better games,” Boylen told KALL 700 radio. “I hope he’s OK. He might have a cracked rib”

Utah entered the game having played a similarly athletic UNLV Rebel team twice in the last two weeks. That experience gave the Utes a head start on facing the Miners, who focused on pressuring the Utes’ backcourt throughout the second half.

After getting beat by the top-tier guards in the MWC all season, Utah decided not to let that happen against UTEP.

The Utes employed a triangle-and-two defense, which Boylen refers to as his fist-up defense, and the Utes held UTEP to just 21-percent shooting in the first half on their home floor. The defense allowed Utah to play man-to-man defense on Jackson and Marvin Kilgore, while creating a three-person zone that protected the key.

In a game of runs, it was several key baskets by Utah in the second half that put a stop to UTEP’s comeback effort and ensured the win for the Utes.

With about six minutes to go in the game and UTEP trailing by 11, Jackson fouled Luka Drca-whose minutes were limited by the flu. Jackson drew a technical foul for arguing and Drca and Bryant calmly sank all four free throws to boost Utah’s lead back up to 15.

After starting the second half with a 10 point lead, UTEP used a quick 7-0 run to cut Utah’s lead to three with less than a minute-and-a-half gone by. The Utes answered with a 16-4 run of their own, which was highlighted by a baseline drive and dish from Kepkay to Kim Tillie.

Utah will almost certainly travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a quarterfinal matchup with the Golden Hurricane on March 24. Tulsa beat Miami (OH) 61-45 in its first round game. Tulsa finished with the same 8-8 Conference-USA record that the Miners finished with. Tulsa beat UTEP both times the two teams played one another this season.

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Associated Press

Utah’s Luke Nevill shoots over UTEP defender Victor Ramalho during the first half of a College Basketball Invitational first-round game. Nevill had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds.