Evan Gilyard matched his career-high with 22 points, and Omega Harris added 18 on “Senior Night” as UTEP raced past Southern Miss, 73-44, on Saturday night in the Haskins Center.
“I’m real proud of our guys,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “Senior Night meant a lot to our guys. They talked a lot about it yesterday and today. They didn’t want to go out with a loss on Senior Night. The fans were great. It was a good crowd given our season and they were very supportive.
“We defended. They got going a little bit in the second half. With the season we’ve had, I was still worried with six minutes [remaining] up 25. I really was. Most coaches sit over there and relax and think about where they’re going to have dinner. But I was worried about it until the two-minute mark when we took Omega out and finished it off.”
The Miners (10-18, 5-11 C-USA), however, were in control for most of the night in winning wire-to-wire for the third time in 2017-18, and for the first time in C-USA play.
UTEP, which has won three of its last four games, closed the first half with a 22-5 run to lead 38-15 at the break. The Golden Eagles (13-17, 6-11 C-USA) shot an abysmal 16.1 percent (5-for-31) from the field and 6.7 percent (1-for-15) from three-point range in the first 20 minutes.
After Southern Miss scored the first five points of the second half, the Miners blew it open with a 7-1 spurt, extending the lead to 24 (45-21) with 14:27 to go.
UTEP didn’t succumb to Southern Miss’ defensive pressure, committing only 10 turnovers – leading to nine points for the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss had zero points off turnovers in the first half.
The Miners were +10 on the boards (40-30) and held the Golden Eagles to 29.6 percent shooting, including a woeful 2-for-19 from beyond the arc.
Gilyard made 7-of-14 shots and all seven of his free throws while adding two steals. Harris scored 11 points in the second half. Isiah Osborne matched Gilyard with two steals while adding 15 points.
UTEP’s other seniors also went out on a high note. Matt Willms pulled down eight rebounds and blocked two shots, moving into fourth place in school history with 123 rejections. Jake Flaggert hit a three-pointer and collected the 66th charge drawn of his career.
“Evan Gilyard was big-time,” Johnson said. “Isiah was great. Omega’s last two games have been his best games of the season. I’m just really happy for our seniors, that they went out with this kind of effort and efficiency.”
The Miners will take confidence on the road to Rice (Thursday) and North Texas (Saturday) as they look to clinch a bid in the Conference USA Championships.
“I think there’s a lot of things with that [confidence],” Johnson said. “Obviously winning. And Gilyard is a tremendous competitor. The other night, late in the game, he goes and gets fouled and then he misses a layup and Matt tips it in. His ability to get to the basket is huge for our team. Across the board, it seems like it’s finally come around. We’ve played kind of tentative, we’ve played without confidence, we’ve played for a lot of things that weren’t good. But we finally seem to have come around. The last two games, we’ve played probably as good of back-to-back games as we have all season.”
Tyree Griffin scored 20 of Southern Miss’ 44 points.
“He’s a good player,” Johnson said. “But man, we did guard their actions. We spent a lot of time on them and their staggers. We switched some, we went back and forth from man to zone to try to keep them off balance. I thought both were pretty good for the most part. I thought we played off of certain personnel. Matt is playing better in these last two games than he has all season, and I think it’s because he feels better. I don’t know if he’s 100 percent but he’s jumping, he’s running. [He had] eight rebounds tonight and you saw the rebound the other night that he got to finish the game off. I think it’s really for the first time, with Tirus [Smith] back, that maybe we’re healthy. And I think our guys kind of feed off those two being back.”
UTEP has a two-game lead on Rice in the chase for the no. 12 seed in the C-USA Championships with two games remaining. To clinch a bid – or even enhance their seed by moving up in the standings – the Miners will need to take their winning act on the road.
“I’m hopeful,” Johnson said. “I thought getting over the hump at Charlotte was big because we didn’t play great, but we played good enough to win in a one-point game. We had a big play at the buzzer to win it. That gave us some confidence to go play on the road. I think our guys will go play. We’re confident. I’ll be shocked if we don’t play well in both games this week.”
Gallery by Kevin Venegas, Photographer – El Paso Herald-Post