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Volume 71, Issue 80, Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Sports

Facing the same predicament

The Cougars and the Miners both need this game to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive

by CHRIS ELLIOTT
The Daily Cougar 

The UH men's basketball team has already reached the point of no return. In a conference that has four teams with the possibility of making the NCAA tournament, it is now officially safe to say every game is a must-win. But tonight's conference match-up between the Cougars and UTEP could make or break both teams' seasons.

"We're 3-3 (in conference); they're 5-0," head coach Tom Penders said. "It's as simple as that. We have to win. It's a critical game for us, and we're hoping that we get a good turnout of fans so we can play our best."

The Miners will enter Hofheinz Pavilion with a 12-5 record, including a perfect record in conference play. Though they have not beaten any ranked teams, they did suffer a one-point loss to Texas Tech (60-61). With a win against Houston, UTEP would make school history by winning an unprecedented six conference games in a row.


Brian Latham leads the Cougars on the defensive end and is second on the team in steals, with 2.2 per game. He also has mastered running the transition game, a huge part of UH's offense.
Gregory Bohuslav/The Daily Cougar

UTEP is led by a starting line-up full of seniors who like to slow the game down so they can get into their half-court offense. This is where 250-pound, 6-8 forward John Tofi makes his living. Tofi averages 14.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. This Elton Brand-style player has marked his territory on the glass and could pose some match-up problems for the Cougars, who have struggled against far less talented big men.

"UTEP plays a different style. They like to keep it in the 60s," Penders said. "It's not like they can't play in the 80s, but they like to slow it down to take advantage of Tofi."

Guard Edgar Moreno and forward Jason Williams could also pose some defensive problems for the home team, but Houston's Brian Latham is up to the challenge of doing the dirty work: playing defense.

"My mindset is to not let my opponent score on me," Latham said. "If you're in front of me, I know you're not going to get to the basket. I do what I got to do to help the team win."

Latham is often assigned to the opposing team's best offensive weapon, if it is a guard. And though his offensive stats do not raise eyebrows, the Cougars would not have a 12-6 record were it not for his defensive intensity and ability to lead the fast break.

Junior guard Oliver Lafayette was viewed as mostly an offensive threat at the beginning of the season, but he has also proven himself as a reliable shutdown defender. His point production has decreased, but he still sees playing time because of his ability to cause turnovers, which lead to the fast breaks Houston thrives on.

It is no secret to the Miners that Houston will try to speed up the tempo as much as possible in an attempt to improve their ratings percentage index. 

Both teams are in a position where they have to basically win eight to nine of their last games to get into the NCAA tournament, and neither team's schedule gets any easier. After UTEP tonight, Houston will have a rematch on Feb. 25 and will face off against conference bully Memphis in the final game of the season.

"We need to take every game and go out and get it," Penders said. "It's in our hands and I don't think there's a game on our schedule that we can't win."

On Feb. 8, UTEP will still have to play Alabama-Birminham and will play at Memphis on Feb. 22. 

With these two tourney-hungry teams backed up against a wall, and basically in the same position, spectators will not have to worry about a boring game.

Send comments to dcsports@mail.uh.edu

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