MBB Offseason Archives: Exhibition Upset Sparked 24-Win Season
April 20, 2012
What may have been UTEP's biggest victory of the 2003-04 season didn't count in the won-loss record.
On Nov. 15, 2003, the Miners played their second exhibition game against the Harlem Globetrotters. UTEP was coming off a 6-24 campaign, but figured to be improved with the infusion of junior college transfers Filiberto Rivera, Omar Thomas and Jason Williams.
UTEP's first exhibition, versus the EA Sports All-Stars, didn't reveal much. The Miners won 88-75, but the EA Sports squad was 1-5.
On paper, UTEP didn't stand a chance against the Globetrotters, who had won 288 straight games and beaten Michigan State and defending national champion Syracuse, among others, earlier in their college tour.
This Globetrotter team featured several former pros, including Cedric Ceballos, who had played in the 1993 NBA Finals with the Phoenix Suns.
The Miners fell behind by 10 points early, then cut the gap to two (48-46) at the half. But UTEP didn't take its first lead until 9:09 to play, when Roy Smallwood swooped in for a layup and a 72-71 advantage.
The Miners didn't trail again, and held on for an 89-88 win when the Globetrotters' Darrick Martin missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. Martin played 16 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves later that year.
Rivera, Thomas and Williams combined to score 51 points, showing that they were as good as advertised.
Looking back almost 10 years later, Billy Gillispie, the coach of the 2003-04 Miners, admitted that his team might not have been near as successful without the monumental win.
"It probably put us two months ahead of where we thought we were," said Gillispie, the current coach at Texas Tech. "It was a real springboard for us.
"We knew Fili, Omar and Jason were going to be good players, but we didn't know that they were going to be that good."
Over 8,000 fans watched as UTEP and the Globetrotters combined to put 177 points on the board.
"It was a great game for the fans to watch," Gillispie said. "There was a lot of offensive firepower. And I think it really signified to people that UTEP basketball was back.
"The fans had heard about Fili, Omar and Jason. They were expecting Roy [Smallwood] to return to form (following an injury), and they had liked [John] Tofi as a freshman. When we beat the Globetrotters, people got even more excited."
Gillispie didn't know what to think about his team's chances before the game.
"In an ordinary situation, you watch a lot of tape on the opponent," he said. "But there wasn't much on them.
"We knew they were going to play hard. It was the last game of their tour and if they won, they got a bonus for being undefeated. I don't think the oddsmakers would've favored the UTEP Miners."
UTEP tied the NCAA record for single-season improvement that year, finishing 24-8.
"It kind of got me labeled as a turnaround guy because of what they did, and that's probably why Texas A&M and Texas Tech hired us," Gillispie said. "It meant everything to me from a professional standpoint."
Gillispie said what made the 2003-04 squad so special was its unselfish nature.
"The year before, the only time we won was when [Omar] Duran made six threes," he said. "We had a lot of guys back from that team who accepted that the new guys had more talent. Even though they didn't play as much as they did the year before, they were really instrumental in the new guys having as much success as they did."
Gillispie may be three stops removed from El Paso, but he still keeps connected with his first NCAA Tournament team.
"I love those guys," he said. "A lot of them are still playing, and rightfully so. And there are some coaches out of that bunch in Omar, Brent Murphy and Chris Craig.
"I keep in contact with most of them. It was a real special time because it was my first time being a head coach."