With his best player going scoreless for nearly 28 minutes and his team once again showing signs of a second-half meltdown, Appalachian State coach Jim Fox admits his confidence was becoming shaky during Sunday’s game against UTEP in the final round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off at Myrtle Beach.
“I tried to smile in the huddle, but my mouth was as dry as could be,” Fox said.
But the Mountaineers regrouped after blowing a 14-point halftime lead, and junior guard Ronshad Shabazz finally found his scoring touch with 12 points in the final 12:07, as Appalachian State defeated UTEP 76-72.
The Mountaineers (3-2) had struggled early in the second half of their previous two tournament games. Iowa State went off on a 30-12 second-half run in the first round, and Western Michigan blew open a tie game by scoring the first 15 points of the second half in the second round.
It initially was more of the same Sunday, as UTEP (1-3) needed barely four minutes to wipe out Appy State’s 14-point halftime advantage, opening the second half by scoring 16 straight.
“It’s like aliens overtake our bodies. We just make some knucklehead plays,” Fox said. “But our guys never stopped playing hard.”
Instead of collapsing, the Mountaineers rallied behind Shabazz, who had scored a total of 57 points in the first two games of the tournament. Against UTEP, Shabazz had a flurry of seven points in 2½ minutes to help Appy State rally from a seven-point deficit.
“That shows you his growth,” Fox said of Shabazz, whose 69 total points in the tournament was only two short of the PRTO record. “In the past he would have sulked and pouted (after going scoreless well into the second half). But he just kept battling. He’s turned into an incredible player and an outstanding leader.”
UTEP was led by Keith Frazier, who finished with 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting despite playing on a sore ankle that he injured in Friday’s second round.
“We’re growing as a basketball team, still trying to figure out some combinations,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “There are some great lessons to be taken from (the tournament) for our team.”