Look out! The Rams are runnin'.
Contrary to almost every other game this season, Colorado State (12-2) came out and set the tone early Wednesday night. Senior small forward Greg Smith went into beastmode in the first half, going 5-7 from the floor for 14 points while hustling to run down long rebounds. His Rams led 29-19, out-rebounding UTEP 22-15 and holding them to a mere 22 percent shooting and five made buckets at the half.
In the second, CSU's lead dwindled down to six at one point as the Miners dug in and played more active defense that frustrated the Rams. Foul trouble kept Greg Smith from the floor for most of the second half – he and Iverson picked up their fourth fouls with nine minutes to go – and UTEP brought the game to 45-44 as CSU went without a field goal make for over eight minutes.
Dorian Green hit a huge three-pointer to give the Rams the 52-48 lead with 4:30 to go, but Jacques Streeter answered with a three of his own to keep it a one-point game. Then a Julian Washburn lay-in gave UTEP their first lead since 5-3, but Wes Eikmeier's clutch free throws swung the balance back in CSU's favor, 54-53. Then, with 39 seconds to go, Wes Eikmeier's made fadeaway jumper pushed that lead to 58-55 and Smith's free throws salted away the 62-58 win.
Rams are now 11-1 with Greg Smith in double digits and he did well in his 100th game for CSU with a team-high 18 points, and five rebounds. Colton Iverson played strongly, with 17 points, while Pierce Hornung grabbed 10 total rebounds. Washburn led UTEP with 22 points but the Miners could only hit 37 percent of their shots all night. The Rams out-rebounded UTEP 37-30 and won the battle in the paint 32-22.
"I thought that was the kind of game we needed," head coach Larry Eustachy said following the close win. "They're (UTEP) really good. This win's going to go a long way in RPI because I think that team could win the Conference USA, they're that well coached."
"Yeah, the way they play, they try to make it an ugly game," said Eikmeier. "They throw out the junk defenses and the way they switch it up...It's hard to get into a real basketball flow and rhythm."
But the Rams finally did find that rhythm, scoring 10 of the game's last 15 points to win their toughest contest of the season.
Colorado State improves to 12-2 on the season, their sixth straight win and 21st straight at home, with their final non-conference game against St. Bonneventure coming this Saturday. Tip-off is 2:30 p.m. At Moby Arena in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist. You can follow Rich on twitter or facebook for all your CSU Rams news and opinion.