NEW ORLEANS — Often times, efficiency bests production.
During UTEP’s 66-57 men’s college basketball win over Tulane on Wednesday night at Devlin Fieldhouse, the Miners (7-6, 1-0 Conference USA) made the most of their chances, while the Green Wave (12-4, 0-1) failed to find the consistent footing it relied on in building a five-game winning streak and taking nine of its previous 10 games.
Instead, the typically stout Tulane defense allowed UTEP to convert 50 percent of its shots, including six of its 13 three-point tries, and wrestle away a victory in the Conference USA opener.
Despite taking 12 more shots (60-48) than the Miners and committing just five turnovers, Tulane couldn’t piece together enough offense because of a frustrating series of possessions that ended with caroms off the rim. Tulane made just 33 percent of its shots and 21 percent of its 3-pointers.
“We wanted it badly, but it comes down to execution,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “Somehow we didn’t find that combination of intensity and execution at the same time.”
Tulane forward Josh Davis frequently illustrated the point, fervently attacking the rim, but struggled to produce his typically successful results. The junior, who led Conference USA in scoring and rebounding at the game’s onset, missed eight of his first nine field goal attempts, nearly all around the rim.
He finished with just nine points on 12 shots, snaring nine rebounds along the way.
While Tulane continued pounding into the paint, shots didn’t fall any easier, with UTEP’s frontcourt collapsing into the baseline on nearly every attempt. Midway through the second half, the Wave’s shooting percentage sank to 31 percent, despite repeated opportunities in the in the post.
Tulane was led by guard Ricky Tarrant, who scored a game-high 18 points, 13 of which came in the second half.
“I thought we forced a few shots around the basket,” Conroy said. “Of course there were a few that we should have made. We want to be aggressive, and it’s something we talk about but we always say ‘together we attack’. It means if you draw two (defenders), you share the basketball. And there are a few they should have made and some we got fouled on but there were others where we needed to just kick it back out.”
Meanwhile, Tulane’s conference-best scoring defense sagged under the weight of UTEP’s motion offense, which efficiently found open looks on cutters and perimeter players. The Miners extended their lead to 15 points late in the second half, as its shooting percentage grew to more than 57 percent.
“I couldn’t tell you how we were getting those looks because we haven’t gotten them before,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We were just pleased to get them. Now, I’ll have to go back and look at the film to see what we did.”
Conroy worked in a series of lineups, both big and small, to find a fix. He occasionally inserted rarely-used 6-foot-9 forward Kevin Thomas and 7-footer Tomas Bruha to add size, in between stints by 6-foot-6 starter Tre Drye, a Baton Rouge native, to boost quickness and improve defensive matchups.
No matter which way Tulane turned, UTEP found a way to exploit it. And it started early.
UTEP jumped on top early, grabbing an eight-point lead in the opening six minutes thanks to a trio of 3-pointers and a series of open layups underneath the basket. However, the shooting soon evened out, and Tulane closed the lane as it whittled UTEP’s lead down to 28-26 at the end of the first half.
Yet, halftime was met with a sour taste by the Green Wave, who converted just 4-of-10 free throws in the opening 20 minutes, despite entering the night shooting 74 percent from the free-throw line.
It was a trend that continued to haunt Tulane, which finished 14-of-23 at the free-throw line including a series of critical misses in the final four minutes.
The loss is an ominous start to conference play for the Green Wave, which has finished 3-13 and in last place during each of Conroy’s previous two seasons at Tulane.
“Everyone knows how frustrating it’s been the past two years in conference,” guard Ben Cherry said. “We definitely didn’t want to start like this, but it just shows if you don’t come out ready to play, especially on the defensive end where they come into your house and feel comfortable, you’re not going to win.
“Still, I think it shows how much better of a team we are, because we played so poorly on defense and gave up so many layups and dunks, but we were down just five with 1:15 left. We just have to put our heads to the grindstone and get ready to play.”