CHARLESTON, S.C. – Matt Willms scored a career-high 22 points and Dominic Artis came within an assist of a triple-double, as UTEP evened its record in the Gildan Charleston Classic at 1-1 with an 85-75 victory over Western Michigan on Friday afternoon.
It was a solid effort for the Miners (2-1) from start to finish, as they shot 58.7 percent from the field, outrebounded the Broncos 37-29 and rediscovered some of their defensive mojo following Thursday’s 103-81 loss to Wake Forest.
UTEP will play in Sunday’s fifth place game and will face either Boise State or Mississippi State at 1:30 p.m. Mountain time. The game will be shown on ESPN3.
“I’m proud of how our guys responded to a very, very difficult defeat,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “I thought our defense was 50 percent better, particularly good in the first half against a team that played the national champs [Villanova] to 11 points the night before.”
The Miners held the Broncos (1-3) to 41.9 percent shooting. Western Michigan’s top player, Thomas Wilder, scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half. The Broncos’ Tucker Haymond worked hard for his 20 points as he made only 6-of-16 shots.
Western Michigan’s last lead was 6-5 three minutes in. UTEP led 37-32 following a tense first half, then broke a 51-51 tie with a 13-1 run midway through the second half. Artis, Deon Barrett and Jake Flaggert all hit three-pointers during the spurt that lifted the Miners into a 64-52 lead with 9:26 to go.
Western Michigan pulled within two (64-62) on a jumper by Brandon Johnson with 6:23 to play that capped a 10-0 run. The Miners scored the next five points – three from Willms, two from Artis – to push it back to seven and were in control the rest of the way.
Artis finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and two steals. He picked up his 10th rebound with 2:04 remaining and had his best chance yet at posting the second triple-double in school history, but Western Michigan fouled on every possession down the stretch.
“I was really pleased with Dominic’s play getting us organized offensively,” Floyd said. “I thought our focus in terms of playing through the post was terrific. As a result the ball moved, we knew when shots were going up, we got back on defense better.”
Of the near triple-double, Floyd said, “That’s a real credit to Dominic’s willingness to give it up, to go back and rebound the ball on the defensive board, and I thought he made great plays and kept us organized late. I thought he was outstanding.”
Willms played a career-high 29 minutes and made 9-of-11 shots, 4-of-6 free throws while adding two assists and two blocks. With 65 career blocks, he is now in 13th place in school history after passing Paul Cunningham on Friday.
Willms is averaging 14.7 points and has made an astounding 19-of-23 shots (82.6 percent) in three games.
“We’re pleased he could play as many minutes as he did,” Floyd said. “We shortened our bench and it probably helped us tonight.”
Omega Harris scored 17 points, Flaggert a career-high 13 and Terry Winn 10 for the Miners.
Flaggert’s emergence was huge after he took just four shots combined in the first two games. He made 4-of-5 three-point attempts.
“He had some open looks. He makes those shots in practice every day,” Floyd said. “I thought that was a credit again to Dominic in terms of finding him and getting him involved in the game.”
The Miners’ winning the rebounding battle was significant considering that Western Michigan outboarded Villanova on Thursday and had a rebound margin of +12 per game entering the contest.
“That’s a real credit to shot organization, knowing when the shot was going up on the offensive end, and a purpose,” Floyd said.
It took a joint effort for the Miners to hold Wilder, the Mid-American Conference’s leading scorer last season, in check.
“I thought Omega did a terrific job on him in the first half,” Floyd said. “And then Dominic finished it up in the second half after Wilder got going on offense. He scored eight straight points at the start of the second half. D.A. said he wanted him and I thought he did a great job.”
The Miners will take a brief break from competition, enjoy Charleston a little bit on Saturday, then attempt to finish the tournament on a high note.
“We’re hopeful to try to get out of this thing with two wins,” Floyd said. “It would be a great accomplishment for our team right now.”