BIRMINGHAM, ALA. – Earvin Morris led a furious second-half rally with a season-high 23 points, but UTEP came up just short at defending C-USA champion UAB, 87-80, on Saturday afternoon at Bartow Arena.
Morris, who had been held to single-digit points in the previous three games, busted out to make 8-of-14 shots while matching his personal best with five three pointers. He scored 18 points in the second half when UTEP cut a 19-point deficit down to five in the last two minutes.
The Miners (10-7, 2-2 C-USA) weren’t able to pick up a win on their first league road trip of the season, but they gave the Blazers and Middle Tennessee, two of the top teams in the conference, all they could handle.
“In a lot of ways, I was really proud of our guys tonight,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We played with a man down in Terry Winn. Some positive things happened in terms of us getting Earvin Morris’ head back up, Jake Flaggert’s head back up. I thought we got solid minutes from Brodricks Jones late in the ballgame for the first time, which is a real positive.”
Winn was limited to 10 minutes, all in the first half, after rolling his ankle in the first half at Middle Tennessee on Thursday. He finished with three points and no rebounds.
Minus Winn, the Miners’ rebounding effort wasn’t a disaster as they were out-boarded 48-40, although UAB (13-3, 3-0 C-USA) converted 16 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points.
UTEP held the Blazers to 38.2 percent shooting (29.4 percent shooting) after they made at least 50 percent of their shots in seven of the previous eight games. The Miners had been 7-0 this season when holding teams under 40 percent prior to the game.
UTEP shot 46.8 percent. The Miners scored 49 points in the second half, when they made 53.1 percent of their attempts.
“Some good things happened,” Floyd said. “I thought we made some adjustments on the fly that our team had not been able to make early in the year in terms of what we’re doing offensively out of timeouts, how we’re going to go play defensively with the screen and rolls and having to switch and do things that we’re not accustomed to doing and I think we tried like heck to do it.”
The first 15 minutes were hotly contested with neither team leading by more than four points. The Blazers gained some separation by scoring the last six points of the half to go into the locker room up 40-31. In the last 3:30 of the period, the Blazers outscored the Miners 8-2 and outrebounded them 7-2.
UAB opened the second half with a 15-5 run to take its largest lead of the game, 55-36 with 14:37 remaining. From the 2:03mark of the first half to the 14:37 mark of the second half, the Blazers outscored the Miners 21-5 with William Lee (seven points) and Chris Cokley (five) combining for 12 points in the run.
The Miners were down 67-54 with nine and a half minutes left but were not out. Morris made back-to-back three pointers to cut it to seven (67-60) with 8:20 to go. UTEP pulled within five (77-72) on a driving layup by Omega Harris with 1:57remaining. Lee rebounded his own miss on the other end and scored to put UAB back up seven.
After Jones made two foul shots to again draw UTEP within five (79-74), Cokley scored a layup and, following a turnover by Dominic Artis, Nick Norton made two free throws to put it away.
“The bugaboo again was the defensive board with 16 offensive rebounds and the number of points they got off of putbacks,” Floyd said. “But we’ll continue to grow as a basketball team. I don’t know how many teams are going to come in here and win in our league this year. They’re a fine basketball team. They’ve got, it looks like to me, power five conference talent and depth. They have great guard play and great bigs and great depth. They utilized all of those against us and did a great job.”
Lee led UAB with 18 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Cokley also had a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards, with Norton (13 points) and Dirk Williams (11) joining him in double figures. Norton chipped in with seven assists and three steals.
Hooper Vint had 14 points, seven rebounds and a career-high six blocks for the Miners. Artis added 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Flaggert and Harris contributed 10 points apiece, with Flaggert scoring in double figures for the first time as a Miner.
The Miners will play only one game next week at travel partner UTSA on Saturday (Jan. 16). Tip-off is 2 p.m. MT and the game will be televised on the American Sports Network.
“We were just a little short in both trips,” Floyd said. “It can be a positive experience going into the conference tournament that we’ve already been here, we played, and we played our hearts out. We’ll see if we can’t go back to San Antonio and pick up our first road win, which we desperately need. We need to get that feeling [of winning on the road] with this new basketball team.”