Pack loses CBI game in final seconds

Scott Sonner
The Associated Press

RENO ” The play is appropriately called “UTEP” and the man who was asked to pull it off was appropriately the Miners’ star senior guard Stefon Jackson, the fifth-leading scorer in the nation.

“It was executed perfectly,” UTEP coach Tony Barbee said after Jackson made the game-winning shot on a floater in the lane with 4.4 seconds left to send his team past Nevada 79-77 Tuesday night in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational.

Jackson scored a game-high 26 points including 4 of 6 3-pointers for the Miners (20-12), who advance to the CBI’s second round against Northeastern (19-12) in Boston on Monday. The Huskies beat Wyoming 64-62 Tuesday night in another first round game at Laramie, Wyo.

Randy Culpepper added 16 points and freshman Arnett Moultrie 13 for the Miners, who led by as much as 13 in the first half on 9-of-18 shooting from 3-point range and were ahead 68-56 midway through the second half before turning back Nevada’s late rally.

Freshman Luke Babbitt had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Armon Johnson had 18 points including a 3-pointer that tied the game 77-77 with 8.7 seconds on the clock for Nevada (21-13), which never led after the first 5 minutes of the game and lost a final chance to pull off a comeback when Brandon Fields’ 3-point attempt fell short as time expired.

“They wanted (Jackson) to make a play and he did,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “We got a shot, but just didn’t get it to go down.”

Barbee said there was no doubt in his mind that Jackson would score if he got a look at the basket. He said they sent Gabriel McCulley up the floor as a decoy and the Wolf Pack took the bait, which allowed Jackson to loop around in the open when the Miners inbounded the ball under their own basket with 8 seconds left in the game.

“Stefon has been clutch for this team throughout his whole UTEP career,” Barbee said.

“How many times have you seen it over and over and over again in big situations? We had an array of guys come up here and play well. But I’m happy for Stefon to be able to continue his college career because it is winding down. He only has a few more games left. And for our young guys, we talked about, let’s take this opportunity to build momentum for next year’s team.”

Julyan Stone had eight points, seven rebounds and eight assists for the Miners, who led 46-43 at the half and finished with 11 of 22 3-pointers on the game.

Babbitt posted his fourth double-double of the year and made 11 of 12 free throws but hit only 4 of 14 from the field for the Wolf Pack, who have posted six consecutive 20-win seasons.

“It was a tough game. We got down. We made a couple of runs but could never get over the hump,” Babbitt said.

It was the 10th consecutive 20-point game for Jackson, who topped the 30-point mark his last three times out and entered Tuesday night’s game averaging 24.4 points per game.

He drove for a basket, made a 3-pointer and pulled up for a 12-foot jumper on a 9-2 run to open the second half and extend UTEP’s lead to 55-45. His layup made it 61-49 with 14:04 remaining.

Fields followed a basket inside with a 3-point goal to pull Nevada within 64-56. And Johnson sandwiched a pair of left-handed bank shots in the lane around Babbitt’s basket inside on a 6-0 run to cut UTEP’s lead to 68-62 with 8:20 left.

Wayne Portalatin converted a 3-point play to put the Miners ahead 73-63 but Nevada answered with a 7-0 run including a 3-pointer by Babbitt and Lyndale Burleson’s layup to pull Nevada to within 73-70 at 5:18.

Culpepper’s floater put UTEP ahead 76-70 with 3:13 left. But Joey Shaw made a pair of free throws and Johnson drove to the hoop to cut it to 76-74 with 1:25 remaining.

With 52 seconds left, Jackson missed the front end of a one-and-one but Moultrie grabbed the rebound. Two seconds later, Culpepper did the same but McCulley got the ball back. Stone made one free throw with 19 seconds left before Johnson nailed his 3-pointer and Jackson answered with the game winner.

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