The UTEP Miners are playing their best basketball of the season and have posted three consecutive victories behind the winning staples of defense and rebounding.
Now they’ll see if that formula for success translates to the road when they play at WKU (Thursday, 6 p.m. MT) and Marshall (Saturday, 5 p.m. MT) this weekend.
Thursday’s game against the Hilltoppers (9-11, 3-4 C-USA) will be televised on beIN Sports.
UTEP (5-13, 3-3 C-USA) has held its last three opponents to 63.7 points per game (53.3 ppg if you throw out three overtime periods versus FIU and Florida Atlantic).
“I just think the diversity of our defense [has made a difference],” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We have added a point zone that has helped us. We have been playing more multiple defenses. Some box and one, some triangle, and our man to man has gotten better because we’re getting back defensively better and we’re rebounding second shots better.”
The Miners have a rebound margin of +5.0 per game during the win streak, and that has coincided with sophomore forward Paul Thomas collecting 32 boards.
“What we’re watching is the development of a young player,” Floyd said. “He is getting better because of opportunity with the time on the court. The greatest number that he has produced has been the rebounding numbers the last three games. And now he’s scoring and finding out that [rebounding is] a great way to score.”
Thomas has averaged 15.0 points over the last three games. The Miners, offensively challenged all season, also got 11 points from sophomore guard Trey Touchet against FIU and 11 from junior forward Jake Flaggert versus UTSA.
“We needed that third scorer. Paul has given us that,” Floyd said. “We have gotten a little bit from Touchet and Flaggert in terms of having a potential fourth scorer. And we are still waiting for Matt Willms to really break out like he did in the tournament in Charleston, but that can happen and we can have even further growth.”
All of this has added up to three wins and a renewed confidence.
“I do think we played with more confidence in the last ballgame [versus UTSA],” Floyd said. “We weren’t efficient offensively in the second half, but our guys are feeling that they can stop people now, and when you’re doing that I think it helps the well being of everybody, including the coaches.”
Now comes the tricky part, securing a road victory for the first time in 2016-17 (0-5 record). The Miners will also try to keep the winning streak going as they enter the meat of their conference schedule. Their next five opponents – WKU, Marshall, UAB, Middle Tennessee, LA Tech – entered the week a combined 26-9 in Conference USA play. WKU and Marshall are a combined 16-1 on their home courts.
“You want to win them both [this weekend] but let’s face it, these next five, given our record, we’re going to be the underdog in all five games,” Floyd said. “We’ve got to do a lot of things well to get anywhere, but let’s start with the next one.”
The next one is WKU, which has several newcomers in its first year under the direction of coach Rick Stansbury. That includes transfers guard Que Johnson (Washington State), Pancake Thomas (Hartford) and Junior Lomomba (Providence) who rank 1-3-7 on the team in scoring. WKU also has junior forward Justin Johnson, who averages 13.4 points and 8.1 rebounds. He is coming off a 21-point, nine rebound effort at Marshall.
“I think that they really shocked a lot of people by who they were able to get,” Floyd said. “A lot of people were scratching their heads saying ‘Good God, they got that guy? Wow, how did they get that guy?’ They put together a roster that gives them a chance to win every night. Justin Johnson is in my top-three favorite players in this league because of how hard he plays and the toughness he plays with. They’ve got shot blocking, they’ve got guards that can score, and they’ve got guards that can pass it. They really did a fine, fine job of assembling some talent there in a short period of time.”
***Miners In Depth
With the third-longest active winning streak in Conference USA, UTEP (5-13, 3-3 C-USA) hits the road to face WKU on Thursday in Bowling Green, Ky.
The Miners have posted three consecutive victories. Middle Tennessee has won seven in a row and LA Tech has won four in a row. This is UTEP’s longest win streak since a six-gamer from Feb. 4-20, 2016. UTEP has climbed from a tie for 12th place in the C-USA standings to seventh with the three wins.
Even with the three game streak, the Miners are still seeking their first road win of the season. UTEP is 0-5 in enemy venues and has dropped seven consecutive road games dating back to last season. The Miners’ last road win came at Florida Atlantic, 89-82 on Feb. 13, 2016.
WKU is 579-163 all-time at E.A. Diddle Arena, and 6-1 this season. The Hilltoppers are 1-1 at home in league play with a win over Charlotte (82-80) and loss to Old Dominion (79-67).
– The Hilltoppers have several newcomers in their first year under the direction of coach Rick Stansbury, including transfer guards Que Johnson (Washington State), Junior Lomomba (Providence) and Pancake Thomas (Hartford).
– Johnson is first on the team in scoring (14.7 ppg), Thomas is third (13.0 ppg) and Lomomba is seventh (5.7 ppg).
– Junior forward Justin Johnson collects 13.4 ppg and a team-leading 8.1 rpg. He is one of two returning starters from last year’s 18-win squad (senior forward Anton Waters, who has come off the bench for all but two games in 2016-17, is the other).
– Thomas is fourth in C-USA in minutes (35.0 avg.) and is also 20th in scoring, tied for eighth in free throw percentage (.808), 15th in three-point field goal percentage (.358) and 15th in three-pointers made per game (2.0).
– Justin Johnson is seventh in C-USA in rebounding, 10th in field goal percentage (.516) and 18th in scoring. He is coming off a 21-point, nine-rebound effort at Marshall where he made 10-of-16 shots.
– Que Johnson is 16th in the league in scoring and tied for 11th in three-pointers per game (2.1). He played against UTEP three times while at Washington State (2013-16), scoring 42 points (14 ppg) and shooting 55.6 percent (15-for-27) from the field, 57.1 percent (8-for-14) from outside and 66.7 percent (4-for-6) from the line. Johnson scored 21 points versus the Miners as a freshman on Dec. 21, 2013 in Pullman.
– WKU commits the fourth-fewest fouls in the nation at 14.8 per game. The Hilltoppers have made more free throws (291) than their opponents have attempted (290), and they average 21.6 attempts per outing to opponents’ 14.5.
– WKU leads the series 2-1. The teams have split two meetings as members of Conference USA, with both winning in overtime on their home floor. WKU posted a 71-66 victory on Jan. 22, 2015 in Bowling Green, and UTEP prevailed 93-89 on Feb. 6, 2016 in El Paso.
– The first meeting was on Dec. 19, 1969 at the Jayhawk Classic in Lawrence, Kan. (the Hilltoppers won 78-59).
THE LAST MEETING
– Lee Moore scored all 23 of his points after halftime, and Earvin Morris tallied a career-high 32 as UTEP rallied from a double-digit deficit and edged WKU, 93-89 in overtime, on Feb. 6, 2016 at the Haskins Center.
– The Miners were down 19 (70-51) with 8:47 remaining in regulation. They outscored the Hilltoppers 42-19 after that on a day that the 1966 national champion Texas Western Miners were honored on their 50th anniversary. It was UTEP’s biggest comeback victory under coach Tim Floyd.
– The Miners outscored WKU 26-7 to end regulation. Moore scored 15 of the 26 points, including a three-point play with 26 seconds left that ultimately forced the extra period.
– UTEP scored the first four points in overtime — a layup and dunk by Morris — and never looked back. Morris scored the Miners’ first seven points in OT.
– UTEP forced 20 turnovers by WKU and outscored the Hilltoppers in points off turnovers, 24-4.
– The Miners were only out-boarded 46-43 by the top rebounding team in the league with Moore collecting his first career double-double (11 boards).
– Morris made 11-of-24 shots and 9-of-13 free throws. Moore shot 8-for-12 in the second half.
MINERS ON THE ROAD
– UTEP has averaged 62.2 points in its five road games, shooting 43.7 percent (118-for-270) from the field, 36.8 percent (32-for-87) from three-point territory and 60.6 percent (43-for-71) from the free throw line.
– Defensively, UTEP is allowing 72.2 ppg with a .456 (115-for-252) field goal percentage and .368 (39-for-106) three-point percentage.
– Opponents have taken 127 free throws to UTEP’s 71, an average of 11.2 more attempts per contest.
– The Miners have turned it over 21 more times than their opponents (81-60). They have been outscored 66-25 in points off turnovers in their three C-USA road games.
– Omega Harris is averaging 19.0 ppg on the road this season. Dominic Artis is averaging 16.0 ppg, Paul Thomas 7.6 ppg and Matt Willms 6.4 ppg. Thomas has made 18-of-30 shots (.600) on the road in 2016-17 and has dished out 10 assists with four turnovers over 131 minutes (26.2 mpg).
– UTEP will play at Marshall on Saturday at 5 p.m. MT.
– The Miners will open a four-game homestand, which ties their longest of the season, against UAB on Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. Legendary Miner Jeep Jackson will be honored on the 30th anniversary of his passing at the UAB game.