- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

A meaningless exhibition game fueled one of the NCAA’s greatest turnarounds.

Texas-El Paso can tie Murray State’s record 19-win improvement in 1980 by beating Maryland on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. UTEP (24-7), which won just six games last year, returned to the tournament for the first time since 1992.

Oddly, the victory the Miners cite as their biggest wasn’t against any team on their 125th-ranked schedule. UTEP gained more confidence from an exhibition win over the Harlem Globetrotters than from beating Western Athletic Conference rivals Nevada and Fresno State.

“Nobody puts much stock in exhibitions,” coach Billy Gillispie said. “But after coming off a 6-24 year, something like that gave us a great deal of confidence and took it five more levels.”

The Miners were the last at-large team selected by the NCAA committee Sunday. UTEP lost the WAC championship to Nevada 66-60 on Saturday but edged Utah State (25-3) for the final bid. However, the Miners aren’t accepting any last-in, first-out theory with a quick exit to Maryland (19-11).

“It’s nice [to make the tournament],” Gillispie said, “but we’ll have to play our best game of the year to have any chance to play with Maryland because they’re so talented.”

UTEP’s top three scorers are junior college transfers. Forward Omar Thomas led junior college scorers the last two years and averaged 36.1 points and 17 rebounds last season for Panola College in Carthage, Texas. Guard Filiberto Rivera was the NJCAA player of the year after leading Southeastern (Iowa) Community College to the JUCO championship while averaging 16.2 points. Forward Jason Williams averaged 14 points for Kilgore (Texas) College.

This season, Thomas leads the Miners at 15.5 points despite coming off the bench. Williams (11.6, 6.0 rebounds) is the leading rebounder, while Rivera (11.2 points) tops UTEP with 146 steals. Meanwhile, Gillispie meshed those newcomers with three returnees. Center John Tofi (10.7, 5.7) is the “big man” at 6-foot-8. Forward Roy Smallwood (8.2, 5.2) returned after missing most of the previous season with a torn ACL. Guard Chris Craig has a school-record 81 3-pointers, including at least one in 27 straight games.

The Miners’ uptempo offense averages 77.3 points, 14.2 more than last year, and a school-record 16.5 assists. UTEP has converted more free throws (594) than its opposition has attempted (539).

“The guys we recruited were used to winning,” Gillispie said. “But no matter how used you are to winning, joining a team that won six games the previous year is not an easy leap. No one imagined we could do the things we’ve done.”

Gillispie already is being linked to possible job openings, including Texas A&M.; Gillispie’s two-year turnaround has re-energized the border college with an average crowd of 10,200, nearly 500 more than Bob Knight and Texas Tech draw.

It probably would take another opening in Texas to lure Gillispie. He was raised in a small Texas town, attended three state colleges and coached three Texas high schools before becoming an assistant at two area colleges. Gillispie finally left for nearby Tulsa in 1997, then spent two years at Illinois before accepting the Miners job last season.

“The job he’s done is unbelievable,” former UTEP coach Don Haskins told the El Paso Times. “Our ‘64 team had Jim Barnes, who was a star, and some guys who were role players, but they shared the ball so well and worked together so well. This group is like that. I really like the way they play together, the way they play defense together, even the way they sit on the bench, the way they conduct themselves on the bench.”

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