BIRMINGHAM, ALA. – UTEP played a dominant first half – racing out to a 49-29 lead – then played through a deluge of foul calls and hung on for an 86-76 victory over Rice in the C-USA Championship quarterfinals on Thursday at Legacy Arena.
The Miners (15-16) played about as well as could be over the first 20 minutes, scoring their second-most points in a half this season and shooting 61.3 percent from the field. Rice (22-11) shot 26.7 percent and UTEP crushed the Owls on the boards, 25-13.
In the second half, a total of 34 fouls were called – 17 on both teams – and 43 free throws were shot. Jake Flaggert, Paul Thomas, Matt Willms and Kelvin Jones all fouled out. Thomas played 15 minutes and Willms played 10. Ivan Venegas played a career-high nine minutes.
And through it all the Miners survived to meet top seed Middle Tennessee (28-4) in Friday’s semifinals. The game will tip at 10:30 a.m. MT/11:30 a.m. CT and can be seen on CBS Sports Network.
Dominic Artis was simply brilliant for the Miners, scoring 26 points – a season-high – and making 10-of-13 shots. He added 10 rebounds and six assists. Omega Harris scored 21 points with six boards. Willms had 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks in limited playing time. Trey Touchet scored 10 points off the bench.
Rice was led by Marcus Evans, who scored 21 points. But 13 of them came at the line. Once again, the Miners held the Owls’ big three of Evans/Egor Koulechov/Marcus Jackson in check. Combined they scored 39 points, but were 9-for-27 from the field. Rice shot 33.9 percent from the game and finished 10-for-28 from three-point land.
“I thought D.A., Omega, Jake and Trey all did a great job of trying to close to their shooters,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “The 10-for-28 [three-point shooting] is something that we can live with in that game. The 33 percent we gave up from the floor is why we won.
“We had a lot of things that we had to play through tonight. Our bigs played well, they just didn’t play very long. We had guy after guy after guy fouling out. Four guys were out and Ivan Venegas had to play a lot of minutes. We had guys playing minutes that hadn’t played. I thought what kept us balanced throughout was the guard play by Dominic and Omega. They kept us solid. We made good decisions with the ball in our hands. We had to play some lengthier possessions and we ended up making shots at the end of those possessions.”
The Miners jumped on the Owls early. They scored the game’s first nine points and led 14-4 about four minutes in. Rice battled back and when Koulechov hit two free throws with 6:25 remaining in the half, it was a 29-24 game. UTEP closed the half with a 20-5 run and the Owls were buried, down 20.
“[The first half] was terrific. It really was terrific,” Floyd said. “Matt and Paul were protectors down at the rim and [the other] three guys had the job of just trying to no-catch those guys. That put them in a drive game and might’ve had something to do with us picking up a foul or two. But they did an excellent job of putting Evans and Jackson in situations that maybe they hadn’t been in.
“I thought what keyed it all was defensive transition in the first half, getting back and locating those guys because they’re special in that area – catch and shoot Koulechov, catch and shoot Jackson and Evans. Our bigs did a nice job.”
With Thomas, Willms and Jones all playing five minutes or fewer in the second half, Rice was able to get back in it. The Owls outscored UTEP 47-37 after halftime and outrebounded the much smaller Miners 20-16. But they never could get closer than nine points.
The Miners shot 56 percent for the game. Their 86 points bested the school C-USA Tournament record by one. They outrebounded the Owls 41-33 and outscored them 38-14 in the paint. In a surprise, UTEP had an 18-9 edge in bench points against the deeper Owls.
“We rebounded it tonight,” Floyd said. “I thought Omega had a couple of back-to-back plays in the first half – a lob pass to Matt Willms for a dunk, and then one more pass on the next possession. He caught the ball in the corner, kicked it back to Trey wide open at the wing. I thought the whole game was good shot versus great shot, good shot versus great shot. D.A. was excellent finishing, excellent dishing off of takes, and Omega as well. It was guard play, and I thought our guards played as well as they have all year.”