The UTEP men’s basketball team capped a tempestuous 2017-18 season by winning four of its last seven games, including a thrilling 68-66 triumph at North Texas (March 3) that catapulted the Miners to the Conference USA Championships for the 13th time in 13 years.
There were storm clouds even before the season got underway, as the departure of 6-11 Kelvin Jones and 6-10 Joey St. Pierre left the Miners severely short-handed in the frontcourt. Then, six games into the season UTEP lost its coach, as Tim Floyd announced his retirement after leading the Miners to a 138-99 mark (75-43 C-USA) in seven-plus years at the helm of the program.
UTEP went 5-7 in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Among the highlights was a 100-50 rout of Louisiana College in the season opener (Nov. 10). The Miners blew out to a 32-0 lead in that game, coming within two points of tying an NCAA record (Seton Hall led Kean 34-0 to start the game on Nov. 29, 1998). UTEP scored 100 points in a season opener for only the third time against the Division III Wildcats.
A series of near-misses over the course of the season began with a 58-56 loss to Boise State in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 16 in Myrtle Beach. The Miners led the Broncos, 56-51 with under a minute remaining before Boise State closed the game with a 7-0 run, including a three-point play by Chandler Hutchison for the deciding points with 3.1 seconds left.
It was the first of 11 games that the Miners would lose by nine points or less in 2017-18.
UTEP would finish 0-3 at Myrtle Beach and drop six consecutive games overall during a stretch where Floyd turned over the reins to long-time assistant Phil Johnson. The Johnson era got off to a promising start with a 4-1 record in its first five games, including back-to-back victories over New Mexico (Dec. 2) and Washington State (Dec. 9) in the Don Haskins Center.
Senior guard Omega Harris scored a career-high 28 points in the 88-76 triumph over the long-time rival Lobos, missing just two shots all night (9-for-11 from the field, 4-for-4 from three-point range, 6-for-6 from the line). A week later, the Miners dispatched a red-hot Washington State team 76-69 with a big second half.
A UTEP team that traditionally got off to a fast start in Conference USA play struggled to a 1-4 mark in its first five league games. The Miners broke through with a 72-68 victory over FIU (Jan. 13) in the Haskins Center but would lose their next six games, including five to teams that would finish in the top-five of the league standings.
In mid-February, UTEP stood 2-10 in C-USA play and was fighting for its life to make the league tournament. The game at Charlotte (Feb. 15) was pivotal as the Miners were just a game up on the last-place 49ers.
Seeking its first road win of the season, UTEP led by as many as 22 points in the first half. But Charlotte came roaring back, forging a seven-point lead with six minutes to go. The Miners, however, dug deep and outscored the 49ers 12-4 over the final 5:58, as junior forward Paul Thomas’ jumper with 2.6 seconds left propelled UTEP to an 87-86 victory.
The Miners had taken a big step towards a C-USA Tournament berth but, coupled with Rice surging down the stretch, needed to take care of business in the final homestand of the season. And that they did, as senior center Matt Willms’ tip-in with 25 seconds left scored a 74-72 win over LA Tech (Feb. 22), and the Miners put together one of their better all-around outings of the campaign with a 73-44 drubbing of Southern Miss in the home finale on Feb. 24.
UTEP had a two-game lead over Rice for the final spot in the C-USA Tournament with two games remaining, but its position became more precarious when the Owls knocked off the Miners, 76-70, on March 1 in Houston.
Suddenly, UTEP needed to win at North Texas (March 3) to guarantee a spot in the league’s pinnacle event. Once again, the Miners stepped up with their backs against the wall. They outrebounded (18-17) and outscored (40-37) the Mean Green in the second half and rallied for a 68-66 triumph on Willms’ game-winning dunk off an alley-oop pass by freshman guard Evan Gilyard with three seconds left.
The Miners’ season ended four days later in Frisco, as they once again had trouble scoring and rebounding against fifth-seed UTSA. The Miners averaged 67.5 points per game for the season and were outrebounded by an average of 4.7 per outing.
Miner seniors Jake Flaggert, Harris and Willms combined to play in 359 collegiate games and scored 2,619 points. Flaggert finished his career ranked 13th in school history in three-point field goal percentage (.366) and is the Miners’ all-time leader in charges drawn (67). Harris is second in three-point field goals (174), fifth in minutes (3,767), eighth in three-point percentage (.388), ninth in scoring (1,407 points) and 10th in steals (126).
Willms, who overcame numerous injuries during his six years at UTEP, finished third in the record book in field goal percentage (.574) and fourth in blocked shots (125).
As the senior class moves on, a group of newcomers showed promise for the future. Sophomore guard Isiah Osborne was the Miners’ leading scorer for C-USA games only (11.9 ppg) and scored 20+ points four times, all versus league opponents. Guard Evan Gilyard led UTEP with five 20-point games, including a UTEP freshman record 29 versus UTSA in the C-USA Tournament. Gilyard set a school record for freshman free throw percentage (.844).
Kobe Magee led C-USA in three-point percentage for league games only (.531). His .425 overall three-point percentage rates fourth in the UTEP freshman record book, and his 31 three-point field goals are tied for fourth among Miner freshmen.
Freshman swingman Trey Wade averaged 7.2 points for the season and picked up the first double-double of his collegiate career (10 points/10 boards) in the season finale against UTSA. Freshman forward Tirus Smith showed signs of being a force inside despite missing six C-USA games with a knee injury. On Jan. 25 at UAB, UTEP had three freshmen score in double figures in a game (Wade 22 points, Gilyard 14 points, Magee 11 points) for the first time since 1982.
With their inside game diminished, the Miners took the offensive attack outside and set a school record with 224 three-point field goals. That narrowly eclipsed the 223 made during the 2015-16 season. The 2017-18 squad was the first in school history to make 11 or more three-pointers in three consecutive games (Rice, Southern Miss, LA Tech). UTEP’s .371 three-point percentage in C-USA play was second only to Old Dominion’s .383.
In the end, UTEP’s 11-20 record was filled with “what-ifs.” The Miners tied the school record by losing four C-USA games in which they led at halftime. They also lost nine C-USA games by 10 points or less. But in a turbulent year, they ended the season strong to keep their string of C-USA Tournament appearances intact. Now a new coach will take the helm of the program in 2018-19, and work to build a contender for the league title.