With their next three C-USA games away from El Paso, the UTEP Miners badly needed a win on Saturday night. And they got it against FIU, as Isiah Osborne scored 21 points in a 72-68 victory.
UTEP (7-11, 2-4 C-USA) turned the ball over only seven times against an FIU team that led C-USA in steals coming in (8.2 spg). The Panthers had only one steal and Brian Beard Jr., who was third nationally in steals entering the contest (3.4 spg), had zero.
“That’s the stat of the night because we talked about it all day yesterday and today,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “It was such a poor performance at Southern Miss [on Jan. 4] turning the ball over, and that’s what they do. They create turnovers. We knew Beard was really aggressive and leads Conference USA in steals. We put a big emphasis on our point guards with two hands on the ball and taking care of the ball. Our big guys protected the ball inside their body so that was helpful.”
The Miners made their free throws (21-for-30, 70 percent), and the Panthers didn’t (14-for-30, 46.7 percent). And UTEP, minus freshman forward Tirus Smith who has a knee injury, outrebounded FIU 43-40.
The Miners still struggled defensively in the second half when the Panthers shot 59.4 percent and outscored them 50-42. But they were able to hold on, going 19-for-26 from the charity stripe over the final 20 minutes.
“It’s really amazing, 18 points we give up in the first half and 50 in the second,” Johnson said. “It’s a recurring theme and that’s a problem that we really have to get corrected. With that said, I’m really pleased with the win obviously. The thing is, seven turnovers for us, we made our free throws and we actually outrebounded somebody for a change. So that was great.”
UTEP got off to a great start, leading 13-2. The Miners were up 30-18 at halftime as Paul Thomas had a big first half with nine points. FIU heated up in the second half. A 13-0 run by the Panthers erased a 45-33 deficit and gave them their first lead, 46-45, on a layup by Beard with 9:35 to go. After the teams traded baskets, the Miners scored five in a row to regain the lead, 52-48.
The game was tied 53-all at the six-minute mark when UTEP put together a 10-0 run and surged in front 63-53. UTEP was firmly in control the rest of the way.
Osborne did most of his damage driving to the basket and finished 7-for-10 from the line. He added seven rebounds. Evan Gilyard scored 14 points. Omega Harris and Thomas had 10 each. And Trey Wade was a stat stuffer with nine points, eight rebounds and four blocks in 27 minutes.
Matt Willms also had eight boards along with two blocks for UTEP.
“Isiah Osborne was big-time and Evan Gilyard was big-time,” Johnson said. ““I thought Isiah exploited some things and created some mismatches. He was really, really good. We’re starting to see a guy emerge in Isiah Osborne.
“Trey Wade gave us a big, big lift. We’re trying to get him to defend better and I thought he tried tonight. Omega is a solid, solid player. Omega has gotten out of control at times in key moments in key games and second halves, and I don’t think he did tonight. I’m so proud of him for that. And Matt was just excellent. When we really needed a basket we got it down there on the block to him and he finished. Just a great team win actually.”
Michael Douglas and Hassan Hussein led FIU (8-10, 2-3 C-USA) with 19 points each.
The Miners will play at UTSA next Saturday at 6:30 p.m. MT as they tip-off the three-game C-USA road swing.
Gallery by Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post