Miners win conference title like true champions
Oh, joy. Oh, happiness. Time for celebration. My team, your team, El Pasoís team is 2009-10 basketball champion of Conference USA.
UTEPís Miners clinched the title with an 80-76 victory over Marshall Wednesday. The victory ran the Minersí season record to 23-5 and their conference mark to 14-1, increased their hopes for a NCAA berth and boosted their prestige in the nation. Even more amazing, it was their seventh straight road victory, a fete only the 1966 national champion Miners had ever accomplished at the school.
THE MINERS won at home, they won on the road, they won when they played well, they won when they played poorly.
Is that that the mark of a true championship team, or what?
They had so many stars they dazzled the eyes. They had so many different heroes in crucial situations there werenít enough medals to pass around. The team had such great depth that subs played like human clones of the starters.
AND THEN thereís coach Tony Barbee. Call him General Barbee. Five star General Barbee. He stood on the sidelines, tall and commanding like General George Patton in World War II, attacking, always attacking with his players, taking no prisoners, wearing the opposition down, asking and giving no quarter.
And yet, Barbee was a man who, when not at war on the court, had the wisdom, the heart and the uncanny ability to handle his troops with the sensibility of a master psychologist. For example:
DERRICK CARACTER came to UTEP because he didnít like the school he was at. Barbee nurtured and molded this 6 foot 9, 275 pound young man into a mild mannered fellow off the court and a Superman on it He was a terrifying force in the paint, gobbling up rebounds like a vacuum cleaner, blocking shots, scoring either with a surprisingly deft touch or a house-rattling dunk.
Then thereís Randy Culpepper, the 6-foot whirlwind who could easily have become a loose cannon. Last year he was often out of control. This year he stole balls, wiggled in for layups, swished three pointers from incredible distances and with even more incredible regularity and zoomed so high above the basket for thundering dunks it seemed like he had sprouted wings.
AND HOW about Julyan Stone? Could a 6 feet 6 college player handle the ball, pass it and run the offense as well as a smaller player at point guard? After all, there arenít many Magic Johnsons around. Stone handled it beautifully. He led the fast break, broke down defenses, set up winning plays.
And letís not forget 6-11 Arnett Moultrie. He is so smooth, so agile, so efficient he had been expected to be the Minersí No. 1 star. It turned out the Miners came up with so many stars he just blended into the mix. But he accepted his role and kept contributing in every game. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Jeremy Williams, who had many outstanding games.
IN ADDITION, There were so many good players sitting on their Ö their Ö warm-ups on the bench that it seemed like it didnít matter which one Barbee picked to rest one of the starters. The Miners didnít skip a beat. Claude Britten, Jeremy Williams, Christian Polk, Wayne Portalatin, Myron Strong and all the rest contributed.
THIS IS WRITTEN before this weekendís game with Alabama at Birminghan. I donít know if the Miners will have a letdown or if they will continue winning at the conference tournament and the playoffs.
I do know one thing. Theyíve brought us an outright conference basketball championship for the first time in 23 years, given us unforgettable thrills and brightened our lives.
And for that, we say congratulations, Miners. And thanks.
Veteran sports journalist and author Ray Sanchez welcomes suggestions for his column. Contact him at (915) 584-0626, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.raysanchezbooks.com