Seven games. That’s all that stands between the UTEP men’s basketball team and the Conference USA Tournament, which tips off on March 7 in Frisco.
The Miners need wins to get to the tournament. With league heavyweights UAB, Middle Tennessee, WKU and Marshall in the rear view mirror, opportunities for victories are ahead. The Miners will be on the road for four of the last seven league games. They are winless on the road this season. Which makes the few remaining home games – starting on Saturday versus UTSA at 7 p.m. – very important.
The Miners (7-16, 2-9 C-USA) had the Roadrunners (13-11, 6-5 C-USA) down 21-5 in the first matchup between the teams on Jan. 20 in San Antonio. But Matt Willms went down due to injury, and UTSA rallied for a 65-61 win.
Since then UTSA has gotten on a roll, winning its last three games versus UAB on the road (82-70), and Marshall (81-77) and WKU (74-63) at home. The Miners, idle since dropping a 74-65 decision to the Herd last Saturday, have had plenty of time to prepare for this weekend’s rematch.
“We actually had more practice days this week because you only play one game,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “We have had some good sessions. We’re trying to put a lot into this game, obviously, and correct the mistakes that we made over in San Antonio and look at the good stuff that we did. We got off to a great start over there and played really well for about 30 minutes. We played a great first half and Matt went down and we just tried to hang on to win it. We had a chance down one with 20 seconds to go, and didn’t get a good shot.”
The Miners have been a different team with Willms on the floor. Still dealing with pain in his foot, he played in only the second half of last week’s games versus WKU and Marshall. His role is uncertain for Saturday.
“We talk every day and try to come up with a plan,” Johnson said. “He has not practiced this week at all. I expect him to go a little bit [Friday]. We’ll see how he feels and go from there. But he’ll play Saturday, whether it’s the second half or come in early and rest it. The issue for Matt is when he plays a couple of minutes and then sits. That’s when it seems to start bothering him. So we try to come up with a good plan, and a plan that he likes is to play in the second half.”
The Miners need healthy big men, and they may be getting one back soon in freshman forward Tirus Smith who has missed the last six games with a knee injury.
“He’s getting closer,” Johnson said. “His conditioning will be a factor. His knee pain is better, or less [than what it was]. He looks pretty good and we could really use him, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes for foul trouble or foul situations. As Matt went down in the last game in San Antonio, Paul [Thomas] picked up three fouls in 30 seconds. And so we had to sit him down and really had Trey Wade and Jake Flaggert as our interior guys. It happened at Middle Tennessee, and that’s a game you don’t want that to happen without Tirus and Matt Willms in the game. They just overwhelmed us physically and that’s my biggest concern, is how physical can we play on the front line and go rebound. Obviously, having Tirus back would really help us.”
Another freshman who has played a key role for the Miners of late is Evan Gilyard, who has scored in double figures in five of the last seven games (13.9 ppg).
“He’s the one guy that has breakdown ability on our team,” Johnson said. “As we get into the bonus especially, we’re really trying to go get fouled as much as possible and we would be foolish not to do that. He’s the guy that I think gets fouled better than anybody on our team. He has that second gear that can get by people and get in the lane. He’s not afraid of contact, which I love about him. He’s really probably our best on-ball defender right now, too. He’s come a long way this season. I’m really proud of him. He’s been a really good competitor. He has been a guy out here in practice every single day working. He is buying into film. So even though he’s just a freshman, I really feel like he has probably come as far as anybody on this team.”
Another impact newcomer for the Miners this season has been Isiah Osborne, who leads the team in scoring for league games only (11.4 ppg). But Osborne has struggled with his shot over the last few contests.
“He has been kind of in and out with some illness,” Johnson said. “He has been weak. I think he’s back ready to go. He did not play well on the road trip to UAB and Middle. He knows that. He wants to play well. In fact, he came to me and talked to me about it. He said ‘Coach, that won’t happen again’ and I believe that. But listen, I don’t fault any player for missing shots. He missed a lot of shots. That’s not my number one thing. My number one thing is just play with tremendous effort and go defend. And if we can do that, there will be nights where we don’t shoot it particularly well but stay in the game with a chance to win.”
The Miners still have time to get on a roll, to get into the C-USA Tournament, to give themselves a chance to win a conference title. And Johnson believes his team has a run left in it.
“I don’t think we’re that far off, and here’s why,” he said. “First of all, there’s nobody that wants to win more than the coaching staff here. We really are trying to fight to figure out a way to get this turned around and get our players playing as a unit, and as a team. There are moments where it’s beautiful. And then there’s some bad [moments]. We just haven’t put together a 40-minute game. There have been times where we look like a great defensive team, and there are times where we look like a very, very poor defensive team.
“I thought both of these games last week were winnable. I don’t think we came out with the fire that we needed to, from the start, in both of those games. I don’t think Marshall and Western Kentucky did, either. They were both right there to be taken for a win. We didn’t play particularly well, and I don’t think we came out of the gates hard enough and tough enough. We have in the past. Really, at UTSA was one of our better starts, but these last two, not so much. We’ve got to get that corrected and just come out [and play]. And you can’t ease into the game. You come out playing from the opening tip.”
Saturday’s game is “Military Appreciation Night.” All military receive discounted tickets with valid I.D. at the UTEP Ticket Center. Regular UTEP ticket prices start at just $8. The UTEP Ticket Center phone number is (915) 747-5234.