Coach Tony Barbee unleashed his team's depth full-force against UCF, and it might just pay off as the Miners move on to the Conference USA tournament semifinals.
Jeremy Williams scored 17 points, Culpepper added 10 and UTEP beat Central Florida 76-54 for its 15th straight win Thursday night, building a big enough lead that the team's top two scorers weren't needed in the second half.
"Through a lot of adversity this year, our depth has been our biggest ally," Barbee said. "Foul trouble, guys not playing well, some injuries, guys missing some games and our depth has been our biggest ally."
Barbee doesn't think the latest bit of adversity for the top-seeded Miners (25-5) is entirely fair, but his players did their best to limit the effects of a quick turnaround before facing fifth-seeded Tulsa 16 hours later in front of what will be an unfriendly crowd.
"No other tournament in the country is doing that," Barbee said. "But it is what it is. You've got to live with it."
As the tournament host, Tulsa was able to pick its time slot. That bumped UTEP into the late game, and the best thing the Miners could do was break it open early.
UTEP used aggressive full-court traps to force ninth-seeded UCF into 12 first-half turnovers, then turned those takeaways into 15 points to build a 28-point lead by halftime. The Miners, who moved into the Top 25 two weeks ago for the first time since 1992, are trying to build on their first outright conference title since 1987.
"We just wanted to get this game over with as quick as possible, so everybody went out and played hard and it was a team effort," Williams said. "Everybody did a good job tonight."
On a day when the each of the conference's other higher-seeded teams lost, UTEP led wire-to-wire for the ninth time this season. The Miners blitzed UCF in the backcourt and raced out to a 15-3 lead behind seven early points from Williams.
After A.J. Rompza's pass sailed out of bounds for his team's seventh turnover in the first 10 minutes, Golden Knights coach Kirk Speraw screamed to his panicking players, "Hey! Slow down!" It didn't work with the Miners forcing the pace.
Isaac Sosa zipped a crosscourt pass out of bounds while trying to break the press on UCF's next possession as the Knights turned it over on three of their next four trips.
"I think early in the game we were turning it over 50 percent of our possessions," Speraw said. "That was something that we wanted to calm ourselves down a little bit more and play with a little bit more poise.
"But give them credit. They got us sped up and got us to turn it over."
Culpepper's fast-break layup off the final turnover in that stretch made it 30-14 with 7:20 left in the first half. UTEP also scored the final nine points of the first half to stretch its lead to 48-20.
The Miners were up by 31 when Barbee pulled Culpepper, his leading scorer, and let him sit out for the final 16 minutes. Derrick Caracter, the Louisville transfer who leads the team in rebounding and ranks second in scoring, got the whole second half off.
"In this league, any team can beat any other team on any given night if you're not ready to play," Barbee said. "I don't know what happened in those other games. I don't know if those other teams just played better."
Keith Clanton had 12 points and Isaac Sosa scored 10 to lead UCF, which lost the teams' only regular-season meeting by 37 points on its home floor. The Golden Knights never got closer than 19 in the second half, pulling within 68-49 when Taylor Young finished an 18-4 run with a 3.
"Their defensive pressure is very good. We didn't handle it very well," Speraw said. "They're a very good team. They're one of the better teams in the country."
Speraw said reserve P.J. Gaynor was hospitalized after a midair collision with Williams with 1:07 remaining in the first half. He rolled over twice on the baseline before a trainer came out to attend to him. Speraw said after the game that he didn't have any information about Gaynor's injury except that he had been hospitalized.
The rest for the Miners' starters could come in handy against Tulsa, the conference's preseason favorite that faded down the stretch to finish in fifth. Caracter will go head-to-head against 7-footer Jerome Jordan, who was chosen to the league's all-defensive team.
UTEP swept the season series, winning 73-59 at home and 78-70 at Tulsa's campus arena.
"We've had some difficult matchups with them, including the ones this year. They weren't easy games," Barbee said. "A great defensive team. (Coach) Doug (Wojcik) does a great job. I expect it to be another fantastic game."