Photo Courtesy of UTEP Athletics
MURFREESBORO, TN. – After scoring 75 points or more in three of their first four Conference USA road games, the UTEP Miners hit a wall on Saturday at Middle Tennessee and dropped an 81-50 decision to the Blue Raiders.
UTEP (7-14, 2-7 C-USA) was held to 17 points, its fewest in a half this season, over the opening 20 minutes. The Miners made 6-of-27 shots (22.2 percent) and 3-of-15 three-pointers (20 percent) in the first half. Fortunately league-leading Middle Tennessee (16-5, 8-1 C-USA) wasn’t much better offensively during that juncture and took only a 13-point lead (30-17) into the break.
The second half, however, was a different story, as the Blue Raiders heated up and the Miners couldn’t keep pace. Middle Tennessee shot 58.1 percent in the second half and outscored UTEP 51-33.
With Matt Willms sidelined due to a foot problem, Tirus Smith still out with a knee injury, and Paul Thomas picking up four fouls in the first half, the Miners didn’t stand a chance inside. Middle Tennessee outscored UTEP 34-16 in the paint and had a 13-4 edge in second-chance points behind a 42-26 rebound margin.
“It’s difficult without any of our big guys, and Paul was in foul trouble so you’ve got Jake [Flaggert] at the five and Trey Wade, who’s not a five, defending a seven footer. That’s very difficult,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “But other than that, I want to just go play hard and compete. We have been doing that for the most part and tonight we had a letdown in that area. It’s just one of those nights where nothing was good. We didn’t guard anybody and we didn’t get to the basket until late. We shot way too many threes in the first half. We were just poor tonight against a real good basketball team.”
The Miners, who never led, fell behind 7-0 early. They pulled within four (10-6) on a three-pointer by Omega Harris with 15:10 remaining in the half. Middle Tennessee went on another 7-0 run to go in front 17-6. Beginning with the 9:12 mark of the first half, the Blue Raiders maintained a double-digit lead.
It was a 15-point cushion (40-25) in the opening minutes of the second half before Middle Tennessee strung together seven consecutive points once again. That made it 47-25 and the Blue Raiders led by as many as 36 points the rest of the way.
“We told the guys [at halftime], we played so poorly and we’re down 13,” Johnson said. “We felt like we were in the game and just three or four stops and you get it down to six or four and you’re right there. Man, they’re good. They shoot it, they drive, they’re big and they throw it in the post. We just didn’t have an answer. We just couldn’t stop them.”
Trey Wade led UTEP with 14 points and nine rebounds, and Evan Gilyard scored all 13 of his points in the second half while adding three steals. The Miners shot 33.3 percent and went 5-for-21 (23.8 percent) from downtown.
Brandon Walters led Middle Tennessee with 17 points and 12 rebounds. The Blue Raiders didn’t need a big night from Nick King, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, or Giddy Potts, who scored seven. Karl Gamble accounted for 12 of Middle Tennessee’s 36 bench points.
UTEP has reached the midway point of the C-USA schedule and has road trips to Middle Tennessee, UAB and LA Tech in its rear view mirror. Five of the final nine league games will be played in the friendly confines of the Don Haskins Center.
The Miners will return to El Paso for three consecutive C-USA contests. UTEP will host WKU on Thursday (Feb. 1) in the “Noche Latina” game at 8 p.m., Marshall on Saturday (Feb. 3) at 7 p.m., and UTSA on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. before hitting the road once again.
“We’ll be happy [to be home],” Johnson said. “I hope the fans will come out and hang in there with us and watch us. We’re going to obviously try to give a better effort than we gave tonight.”