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What we learned from the opening night of Conference USA hoops

What can be taken from the first four C-USA games on December 28

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament- Marshall vs Lousianna Tech Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Non-conference play is over and for Conference USA, and conference play has been the great equalizer for the past few seasons. UAB went 4-9 in the non-conference in 2014-15 and won the C-USA title. UTEP went 2-10 in non-conference play last season and finished in the top four of the conference. There were only four games Thursday night, but star players are emerging and the bottom of the conference is starting to show.

Marshall Thundering Herd 85, Southern Miss Golden Eagles 66

This game proved two thing: first, that Marshall is still a good offensive team, even without second-leading-scorer C.J. Burks. It also proved that Ajdin Penava is the real deal for the Herd. Penava is averaging 19 points per game and added a double-double last night with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Jon Elmore was two rebounds away from a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Southern Miss’s Tyree Griffin finished with 19 points and Cortez Edwards ended with 18. The Golden Eagles have now lost three straight games and the road does not get easier as they now head to Western Kentucky.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 69, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 68

This was the marquee game for C-USA’s opening night and it did not disappoint. The Hilltoppers led for over 39 minutes until madness ensued in the final minute. Louisiana Tech’s DaQuan Bracey scored with 18 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs their first lead since 2-0. Seven seconds later, WKU’s Lamonte Bearden was fouled by the Bulldogs’ Joniah White and went to the line to shoot two free throws. He missed both, but got his own rebound and was fouled by Bracey. Bearden made both free throws to give WKU a 69-68 lead with 11 seconds left. The Bulldogs did get a last look at the basket as Bracey drove to the hoop, but his shot was blocked and Jacobi Boykins missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.

The Hilltoppers have had the talent in the past few seasons, but have not finished in the top half of C-USA since 2015. This win gets the Hilltoppers off on the right foot and could pay off late in the season. It should be noted that the Bulldogs were without one of their top scorers, Jalen Harris, but Louisiana Tech needed this win to make a statement on the road. Louisiana Tech is 4-5 in its last nine games and now heads to a hot-shooting Marshall team on Saturday.

UTSA Roadrunners 79, Rice Owls 66

Rice’s struggles continued in San Antonio last night. The Owls’ largest lead came when they were up 3-0. From then on, it was all UTSA. If Rice wants to improve this season, it will have to clean up the turnovers. Rice currently leads the conference in turnovers, averaging 18.1 per game and added 21 giveaways last night. The Owls are 3-11 and look like they will continue to be the bottom feeder of the conference. For UTSA, the Roadrunners have found their sharp-shooter, and his name is Jhivvan Jackson. The freshman is averaging 17.2 points per game and is the reigning conference Freshman of the Week. The Roadrunners will now welcome North Texas, fresh off a win at UTEP, to the UTSA Convocation Center on Saturday. Rice will head to El Paso to take on UTEP this weekend.

North Texas Mean Green 63, UTEP Miners 62

After a poor start to the season, UTEP seemed to have a strong December, going 4-0 to start the month. However, the Miners lost their final non-conference game to North Dakota State and started conference play with a loss to UNT Thursday night. The last time the Mean Green won in El Paso? 1951. This game can be a confidence booster going forward for UNT, which has found its offensive threat. Roosevelt Smart scored 29 points and is averaging 18.4 points per game (fifth-best in C-USA). The largest weak spot on this Mean Green squad comes at the free throw line. Smart is shooting 90 percent from the line, but the team is shooting 66 percent combined. This almost cost the Mean Green against UTEP — they shot 55 percent from the charity stripe. For UTEP, the Miners showed C-USA last season that it can bounce back from a poor non-conference performance (finished fourth in C-USA), but this team is struggling to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Rice could not come at a better time for the Miners, who are in need of an offensive confidence boosting game.