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H-P Sports In Depth: UTEP Prepares for Make-or-Break Road Trip To Florida

UTEP’s charge to a 9-2 mark over the last 11 games started with a pair of overtime victories over FIU and Florida Atlantic in the Don Haskins Center in mid-January.  Now, with the regular season winding down, the Miners will meet the Panthers and the Owls on the road as they continue to chase a top-four seed in the rapidly approaching Conference USA Championships.

UTEP (11-15, 9-5 C-USA) will face Florida Atlantic (9-16, 5-9 C-USA) on Thursday in Boca Raton, and FIU on Saturday in Miami.  Both games will tip at 5 p.m. MT.

The Miners were 2-10 when league play began on Jan. 1.  UTEP’s .167 non-conference win percentage was the second-worst of any team currently above .500 in a conference.  Mount St. Mary’s was 2-11 (.154) and is currently 13-3 in the Northeast Conference.

“It’s a good story for us certainly just looking internally, based on the emotions and how we felt and what we’d gone through early in the season,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said.  “We got a guy healthy in Matt Willms.  We got a player get much better in Paul Thomas.  As a result of Matt’s getting better, Trey Touchet and Jake Flaggert are now getting shots in rhythm, Dominic [Artis] and Omega [Harris] are playing better.  It’s a nice story right now.

“I think our players should be commended for taking accountability for the inadequacies that we had earlier in the season, and taking self-blame and putting it on themselves and trying to get better.”

The Miners are tied for third place in C-USA with Old Dominion.  The Monarchs are coming to the Don Haskins Center a week from Thursday, making this week’s games very important.

Florida Atlantic is 4-3 at home in C-USA action but 1-6 at FAU Arena, although the Owls have dropped some heartbreakers there to UAB (80-78), Middle Tennessee (86-57), North Texas (70-64) and Rice (81-75 in overtime).

Junior guard Gerdarius Troutman, who scored 22 points with six three-pointers at UTEP on Jan. 14, was inserted into the Owls’ starting lineup for the last seven games.  He scored 25 points at Southern Miss on Saturday, including seven threes.

Florida Atlantic is fifth in C-USA in three-pointers per game (7.3) and has committed the fewest turnovers in the league (291).

“Florida Atlantic has won four of its last seven [games] with all four wins on the road, at Old Dominion and at Charlotte and a really decisive win at Southern Miss most recently,” Floyd said.  “One of their losses in that stretch was to Rice in overtime.  This is like an entirely different team.  I know we’re different, but they’re different as well.”

The Miners may be playing their best basketball of the season, but there is still room for growth.

“Do we want to get better?  Yeah, and that’s the encouraging thing about what we’re watching right now,” Floyd said.  “These kids are really liking how they feel and they’re wanting to work and they’re trying to get better, and they’re looking at what we didn’t do well in the last game and they’re not unrealistic right now. That’s a good place to be.”

With their next victory, the Miners will have double-digit conference wins for the fifth consecutive season and the eighth time in nine years.  But the ultimate goal is to continue to improve as much as possible between now and March 8, when postseason play begins.

“We know that we’re approaching the conference tournament and as long as we focus on each other and trying to make each other better every day, we’re going to be OK regardless of if we lose a game or two and have a bump in the road,” Floyd said.

OPENING TIP

–    UTEP (9-15, 9-5 C-USA) makes a trek to the Sunshine State for a third consecutive year this week.  The Miners will take on Florida Atlantic Thursday and FIU Saturday.
–    Up first is a matchup with Florida Atlantic (9-16, 5-9 C-USA) in Boca Raton.  Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. MT.
–    The Miners swept two games in Florida in each of the last two years.  In 2015, UTEP prevailed 63-56 at Florida Atlantic and 67-64 at FIU.  Last year the Miners faced FIU first and beat the Panthers 84-74 before knocking off the Owls 89-82.
–    UTEP is playing its last two road games of the regular season.  The Miners are 3-6 on the road but have won three straight C-USA away games for the first time since January of 2015.  UTEP’s last four-game C-USA road win streak came during the 2013-14 season, when it was victorious in its first five league contests outside of El Paso.
–    The Miners are tied for third place in the league standings with Old Dominion (16-10, 9-5 C-USA).  UTEP will host the Monarchs on March 2.  The top four teams in C-USA will earn a bye to the league tournament March 8-11 in Birmingham.
–    UTEP has matched its longest winning streak of the season at three games.  The Miners are seeking four consecutive victories for the first time since reeling off six wins in a row in February of 2016.
–    With its next victory, UTEP will secure double-digit C-USA wins for the fifth consecutive season and for the eighth time in nine years.

ABOUT FLORIDA ATLANTIC

–    The Owls are 4-3 on the road in C-USA play, but only 1-6 at FAU Arena where they have dropped four straight to UAB (80-78), Middle Tennessee (86-57), North Texas (70-64) and Rice (81-75 in OT).
–    Florida Atlantic is coming off a 94-82 victory at Southern Miss on Saturday.  Junior guard Gerdarius Troutman, inserted into the starting lineup for the last seven games, poured in 25 points.  He shot 9-for-12 from the field and 7-for-9 from three-point range.
–    Troutman is second on the team in scoring for the season (10.1 ppg) but is averaging a team-leading 12.1 ppg in C-USA play.  He is shooting 46.7 percent from three-point range and 77.3 percent from the line in conference action.  Troutman is fourth in league in three-point percentage for all games (.444), and second for conference games only.  He rates 17th nationally in three-point percentage.
–    Troutman is averaging 2.7 made threes per game, second in C-USA.  His seven makes at Southern Miss tied for the most by a league player this season.
–    Senior guard Adonis Filer is averaging 10.1 ppg and sophomore guard Justin Massey is averaging 9.1 ppg.  The Owls’ top inside player is junior center Ronald Delph (8.4 ppg/7.0 rpg/1.5 bpg), who started his college career by redshirting at Auburn (2013-14) under former Miner head coach Tony Barbee.
–    The Owls are fifth in C-USA in three-pointers made per game (7.3).
–    Florida Atlantic has committed the fewest turnovers in C-USA (291) and is averaging 11.6 per game, second in the league behind Middle Tennessee (10.6).

SERIES HISTORY

–    UTEP leads the series 4-1.
–    The Miners are 2-0 versus the Owls in Boca Raton with victories during the 2014-15 (63-56) and 2015-16 (89-82) seasons.

THE LAST MEETING

–    Omega Harris scored 18 points, and hit the jumper that gave the Miners the lead for good to start overtime in an eventual 66-65 victory over Florida Atlantic on Jan. 14 in the Haskins Center.
–    The Miners held FAU to 36.2 percent shooting, including 21.4 percent (6-for-28) from three-point range.  Gerdarius Troutman pretty much single-handedly kept the Owls in the game, scoring 22 points and making all six of his team’s three pointers.  He was 6-for-9 from beyond the arc, the rest of the squad was 0-for-19.
–    UTEP led throughout the first half and remained in front until 3:57 remaining in regulation, when Troutman hit two free throws for a 50-49 FAU lead.  It was the Owls’ first advantage since 4-2 early on.
–    Willms broke a 52-52 tie on a free throw with 1:22 remaining, and Dominic Artis’ layup pushed the Miner lead to three (55-52) with 13 seconds left.  Troutman hit his fifth three of the game with five seconds on the clock to sent it to overtime.
–    The Miners scored the first four points in overtime, built an eight-point lead (66-58) with 1:15 to play, then withstood a furious rally by the Owls.  After Troutman cut it to one (66-65) on his final triple of the evening with three seconds left, the ball was inbounded to Trey Touchet who threw it into the frontcourt, enabling time to run out.
–    Willms scored 16 points, Paul Thomas had 14 points and eight rebounds, and Artis added 11 points.
–    After falling behind 4-2 early, the Miners scored eight straight points to take a 10-4 lead on a layup by Harris with 14:34 remaining in the half.  Florida Atlantic knotted the score at 11, but UTEP answered with a 9-0 run to power ahead 20-11 on a layup by Touchet with 8:43 to play.
–    Florida Atlantic ended the half with an 8-2 run to trim a 24-15 deficit down to 26-23. Troutman made two of his three first-half three-pointers over the final 3:29 of the period.

LAST GAME: UTEP 79, RICE 71

–    Paul Thomas scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, and UTEP led from start to finish for the first time this season in a 79-71 victory at Rice on Feb. 18.
–    UTEP jumped out to a 16-6 lead, led by as many as 14 in the second half and met every charge by the Owls, who had their five-game win streak snapped.
–    The Owls were averaging 82.1 points and scored 71.  They were shooting 39.9 percent from three-point range and finished 8-for-29 (.276) from beyond the arc.  They were shooting 47.5 percent from the field and were harassed into a 34.5 percent (20-for-58) night.
–    It was a total team effort as the Miners battled foul trouble all night.  Matt Willms was limited to 23 minutes before fouling out.  Jake Flaggert and Thomas ended the game with four fouls.
–    The Miners crushed Rice in the paint, 24-10.  In a role reversal, they shot 64.3 percent (9-for-14) from three-point land.  They enjoyed a slim 35-33 advantage on the boards and turned it over 14 times, but only five times in the second half.
–    Dominic Artis scored 16 points with six rebounds, seven assists and three steals.  Omega Harris scored 15 points with an efficient shooting night (6-for-10 FGs, 3-for-4 3FGs).  Flaggert was 3-for-3 from long range, all in the second half.  Thomas made 7-of-9 shots and added 11 rebounds for his fifth career double-double.
–    Rice’s three big guns – Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov and Marcus Jackson – combined to score 31 points on 7-for-26 shooting from the field, 4-for-18 from three.
–    The Miners saw a 10-point lead shrink to five (29-24) at halftime.  They started the second half strong and went up by 14 (46-32) on a three-pointer by Flaggert with 14:23 to go.  Jackson pulled the Owls within seven (66-59) on a three-pointer with 4:13 remaining.  The Miners scored the next four points to put the Owls on life support.

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