Rainbows ready for
last shot at UTEP

UH's last WAC game at
Texas-El Paso is key for Hawaii

Trips to the Don Haskins Center haven't produced a lot of victories for the Hawaii basketball program over the years.

Hawaii at UTEP

When: Tomorrow, 4:05 p.m. (Hawaii time)
Where: Don Haskins Center
TV: None
Radio: Live, KKEA 1420-AM
Internet: HawaiiAthletics.com

But as the Rainbow Warriors prepare to play their final Western Athletic Conference game on Texas-El Paso's home court, coach Riley Wallace does have a few warm memories of UH's visits -- namely coaching against the man the arena is named after.

"You knew you had to be prepared. He was one of the top coaches ever, a hall-of-famer," Wallace said of matching wits with UTEP coaching legend Don Haskins. "Any time you played in there against his teams you had to be ready."

UH, which has won just five times in 24 tries in El Paso since joining the WAC in the 1979-80 season, faces UTEP tomorrow in the 50th meeting between the longest tenured teams in the conference. Tipoff is set for 4:05 p.m. Hawaii time.

UTEP will leave the WAC this summer to join Conference USA -- as will Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa -- and the Miners are hoping to take the conference championship as a parting gift.

The Miners (14-3 overall, 4-1 WAC) enter the week tied with Rice for second place in the conference, trailing leaders Fresno State and Nevada (both 5-1) by a half-game.

UH (10-3, 2-3), meanwhile, is looking to stay in the hunt after dropping a home game to Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

"They know they've got their backs against the wall and they've got to go on the road and steal some games," UTEP coach Doc Sadler said. "So I expect Thursday night to be one of the toughest games we've faced all year."

The Rainbows arrived in El Paso on Monday, hoping that the extra time would help them acclimate to the dry West Texas air. However, today will be their first opportunity to practice in the Haskins Center as the arena was not available to them the past two days.

The 'Bows practiced at El Paso's Montwood High School on Monday and drove to Las Cruces, N.M., yesterday to work out at New Mexico State's Pan American Center.

Wallace said he wanted the team to practice in a more game-like environment than the high school gym and arranged for the Rainbows to have a two-hour workout at New Mexico State yesterday with the help of Aggies coach Lou Henson.

Las Cruces will become a regular stop for UH when the NMSU joins the WAC next season.

"We'll be up there next year, so that gave us a trial run," Wallace said.

For the Rainbows to steal a much-needed road win, they'll have to contain the WAC's highest scoring offense.

UTEP's up-tempo attack averages 76.9 points per game, led by forward Omar Thomas' conference-best 20.8. The Miners also rank second in scoring defense, giving up 61.4 points per game.

The Miners tend to keep the scoreboard operator busy when they get their running game in gear. In their last two home games, the Miners beat Rice 96-67 on Jan. 6 and routed Tulsa 105-70 two days later.

"That's our game for 40 minutes," said UTEP guard Filiberto Rivera, the WAC's assist leader at 6.5 per game. "We love to run as long as we can, so we just try to take it to the hole every time. That's our first option, transition."

UH is the stingiest team in the WAC (60.4 points allowed per game) and Wallace said the Rainbows' rebounding will be the key to controlling the tempo of the contest.

UH forwards Julian Sensley (6-9), Matthew Gipson (6-9) and Jeff Blackett (6-8) and center Chris Botez (7-foot) will have a significant height advantage over UTEP's starting front line of Thomas (6-5), Jason Williams (6-6) and John Tofi (6-8).

"We've got to get on the boards, and that'll slow (the running game) down," he said. "They'll try to run on you because they know with a little dry air and a little bit of altitude it can wear you down."

Prior to last year's 71-62 loss to the Miners in El Paso, UH had won five straight against UTEP.

UTEP finished last in the conference in back-to-back seasons before posting the nation's biggest turnaround last year, going from 6-24 to 24-8 and earning a share of the WAC regular-season title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

As the wins have returned, so have the fans, who will look to make UH's last appearance at the Haskins Center an unpleasant one tomorrow.

"They have good fans and I enjoy them," Wallace said. "When they've got 10,000 to 12,000 in there, those kids play harder, there's no question. But it also helps get our team up too. When there's a big crowd, our guys show."

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