Matt Willms scored nine of his 14 points in a game-ending 19-6 run as UTEP handed Middle Tennessee is first conference loss of the season, 57-54, on Saturday at the Haskins Center.
The Miners (8-14, 6-4 C-USA) won for the sixth time in seven games, while ending the Blue Raiders’ (20-4, 10-1 C-USA) 10-game win streak. UTEP trailed 39-22 with 14:08 remaining. The Miners outscored Middle Tennessee 35-15 over the final 13:46, holding the Blue Raiders to six field goals during that span. Middle Tennessee scored one field goal in the final six minutes, when it was outscored 15-4.
“Another step in our growth,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “Our crowd was just awesome, absolutely awesome. We stepped up and made free throws, big free throws late. We had really struggled at the line the last three or four ballgames.”
The Miners made 9-of-10 foul shots in the second half and 15-for-18 for the game, none bigger than Willms’ two with eight seconds left that pushed a 55-54 lead to 57-54.
“Matt had struggled, he stayed late after practice yesterday and made two big ones [tonight],” Floyd said.
After falling behind by 17, the Miners scored 11 consecutive points to pull within six (39-33). Middle Tennessee extended the lead back to double digits and was ahead 48-38 when Brandon Walters scored with 7:26 remaining. Then the Miners mounted their run.
Willms scored five points in a 9-0 run that turned a 50-42 deficit into a 51-50 lead. When Omega Harris hit a jumper with 2:27to play, the Miners had their first lead since it was 1-0.
JaCorey Williams, who was a one-man wrecking crew for Middle Tennessee with 24 points and 10 rebounds, put the Blue Raiders ahead 52-51 on a jumper with 2:09 to go. He gave them a 54-53 lead by splitting two free throws with 37 seconds left.
The Miners did the rest of their damage at the foul line, as Harris made two free throws with 22 seconds left and, after Edward Simpson missed a three-pointer, Willms made two more with eight seconds remaining. Middle Tennessee’s Giddy Potts missed a three pointer at the buzzer.
“I thought our guards showed a lot of heart on the other end,” Floyd said. “Defensively we created some turnovers, which led to some easy baskets for us. We were struggling again [offensively], back-to-back nights. We’re down 17 with 14 to go and the defensive stops created runouts, created looks. Dominic Artis had a couple of great, great finishes at the rim. I thought Matt played with greater offensive discipline in the second half, posted deep instead of being out on the floor. He played with more strength to the rim and did a great job.”
Artis collected 13 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Paul Thomas had 10 points and six rebounds.
Williams made 10-of-15 shots and 4-of-5 free throws for Middle Tennessee. But the Blue Raiders’ other stars, Reggie Upshaw (zero points, one rebound in 23 minutes) and Potts (nine points, 3-for-11 from the field) were held in check.
Middle Tennessee uncharacteristically turned it over 19 times, which was the equalizer on a night where it shot 48.9 percent to UTEP’s 41.3.
“They missed a couple of big free throws, which helped us,” Floyd said. “That’s a terrific, terrific team that we were playing against. I think it’s a better team than the one that beat Michigan State last year. This JaCorey Williams is an absolute dynamic, dynamic player and he showed it again tonight. Reggie Upshaw, who was preseason pick for player in our league, we held him to zero points tonight and one rebound which was great for us. We know he’s a better player than that. And Giddy Potts, who will be a first team all-leaguer, he had nine points, 3-for-11. Defensively is where we have gotten better.”
The Miners trailed 27-16 following a miserable offensive first half where they shot 20.8 percent (5-for-24), 0-for-7 from three-point range.
“We are still a work in progress offensively, I know you all think that we never work on offense after watching our first halves but it’s all we did yesterday and you’d never know it,” Floyd said. “We’re missing point blank, we are 0-for-7 from the three-point line and I liked all seven of those looks, but 4-for-5 in the second half.”
In the second half, UTEP shot 63.6 percent led by Willms, who was 5-for-7 from the field.
The Miners will continue a four-game homestand against LA Tech (Thursday, Feb. 9) and Southern Miss (Saturday, Feb. 11) next week. UTEP is a half-game out of third place, and a game and a half behind second-place LA Tech after pulling the stunning upset of Middle Tennessee.
“They shot for a better percentage but they had 19 turnovers and that was the big difference,” Floyd said. “We forced some turnovers, which has not been a real strength of ours. Their team leads the league in assist/turnover ratio. That is the best-coached team that we have played against all year long. [Kermit Davis] does a phenomenal, phenomenal job. He should be coaching at any of the major schools. If he’s there he’s going to win a national title. He’s that good. They were due for a loss at some point. I’m just glad it was us. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Photo gallery by Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer El Paso Herald-Post