Culpepper leads Miners to C-USA crown
Texas-El Paso coach Tony Barbee paused for a second when asked how long the Miners would celebrate their Conference USA championship.
"It's ours," Barbee said. "We're going to enjoy it. How much time that is, I don't know. We can't feel comfortable with where we're at."
Randy Culpepper scored 32 points to lead No. 24 UTEP to an 80-76 victory over Marshall on Tuesday night, clinching the Miners' first outright Conference USA title.
UTEP (23-5, 14-1) broke into the Top 25 on Monday for the first time since February 1992 and is riding a 13-game winning streak.
With an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament at stake in next week's conference tournament in Tulsa, Okla., there's still a lot of work ahead for the Miners, and if there is no second NCAA bid for Conference USA, UTEP might have to settle for a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
"There's no other guarantees at this point, so we've got business to take care of," Barbee said.
Culpepper, the conference's third-leading scorer at 18.1 points, has the two highest-scoring games in the league this season and Marshall did little to stop him in the second half, when he scored 22 points.
Culpepper hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer and then made three more in the first 2:28 of the second half, plus a free throw, to erase a 10-point deficit and put the Miners ahead 41-38.
"Going into halftime, Coach Barbee told me to keep it up," Culpepper said. "Once I hit the first couple of 3s, Julyan Stone, our point guard, said he'd keep coming back to me. That's exactly what happened."
UTEP had to overcome monster games from Marshall's Tyler Wilkerson and Hassan Whiteside to tie a school record with its seventh straight road win.
Wilkerson came out of a two-game scoring slump to lead Marshall (22-8, 10-5) with 22 points and 16 rebounds in his final home game. Whiteside, a freshman, had 20 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots.
"There's no way you win on the road in the places we win without being mentally tough and I thought we showed that again tonight," Barbee said. "Tough place to play. Tough place to win at. But we've got one of those type of teams."
Culpepper followed a soaring, one-handed dunk with another 3-pointer that gave UTEP its largest lead, 62-51, with 9:25 left.
Despite Culpepper's show, Marshall surged ahead by going after rebounds. The Thundering Herd made three baskets after missed shots in a two-minute span and Damier Pitts' 3-pointer with four minutes left gave Marshall a 72-68 lead.
The Miners needed a strong finish from Derrick Caracter, who scored 10 of his 18 points in the final five minutes. His layup with 31 seconds remaining put the Miners ahead 78-76.
Wilkerson missed a jumper and the ball went out of bounds with eight seconds left. Culpepper completed the scoring with two free throws.
Claude Britten added 14 points for UTEP.
Marshall, which saw its seven-game winning streak snapped, was coming off a 121-115 win in triple overtime over Central Florida on Saturday
"When you play a very good basketball team, there's not a lot of room for error," Marshall coach Donnie Jones said. "It's a game of adjustments and tonight it went their way. It's been a long week. A lot of minutes played on Saturday. No excuses."
Marshall scored 49 first-half points in that game but didn't start out on that pace Tuesday.
Marshall missed eight of its first 10 shots and fell behind 16-10 but used a 10-0 run late in the first half to go ahead. Pitts' jumper in the lane put Marshall ahead 36-26 with 45 seconds left until halftime.
Whiteside was coming off his third triple-double of the season on Saturday, including 13 blocked shots.
Barbee said the 7-foot Whiteside reminds him of Marcus Camby. Barbee was a graduate assistant at Massachusetts when Camby was the AP player of the year in 1996.
"They could be twins from a defensive standpoint," Barbee said. "Whiteside is light years ahead of Marcus in terms of offense. It could be scary where his ceiling could be."