The UTEP Miners lost an eighth consecutive game on Thursday, 62-57 to UC Irvine, but came out of it feeling a lot more optimistic heading into the holiday break.
That’s because the Miners got after it on the defensive end, implementing a zone that frustrated the Anteaters into 36 percent shooting. And for the second straight game, UTEP went down to the wire with an opponent in the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational, only to come up just a bit short.
“I feel better about us tonight than I did coming into the weekend,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We couldn’t guard anybody coming into this weekend, and back-to-back games we at least gave ourselves a chance to play on the other end because we were better defensively. We will continue to grow offensively. The other reason I feel better about us now is because Matt Willms and Paul Thomas had been no-shows going into the weekend, and we got some play from those two guys.”
Thomas was 4-for-4 from the field and 5-for-5 from the line in Wednesday’s tournament opener against Maryland Eastern Shore. Willms averaged 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the tournament, making 11-of-17 shots.
The Miners were tied with Maryland Eastern Shore in the last three minutes of Wednesday’s game. They were tied with Irvine in the last five minutes. They couldn’t execute quite well enough to win down the stretch, but they’re making strides.
“I like the fact that we were a little more organized coming into play offensively tonight, not as helter skelter, as reckless, playing two on four and two on five in transition,” Floyd said. “We were able to play through the post and it looked like we actually had a scheme. I credit our guards for that, and hopefully there will be some carryover when we come back out [from break].”
The Miners allowed 71 and 62 points in their two Sun Bowl tourney games after yielding an average of 78 in the previous four contests. Making strides, thanks to some new wrinkles on defense.
“I thought the zone helped us,” Floyd said. “Coach [Bobby] Braswell brought it with him and thought it would fit our team, our personnel. That’s why you saw him so active on the sideline tonight. He did a great deal of talking in our shootaround this morning. I’m proud of our kids for getting it into the game. I thought we played well with it.”
UTEP (2-9) took a 36-35 lead early in the second half before Irvine’s Jaron Martin hit four three pointers in a span of two minutes. That put the Anteaters (6-9) ahead 44-38 and left the Miners playing from behind for much of the rest of the game.
UTEP did tie it once, at 49-all with 4:41 to go, but Martin struck again with two free throws and a three-pointer to push the lead to 54-49. The other backbreaker came with 29 seconds remaining, when Irvine’s Eyassu Worku hit a jumper to stretch a two-point lead (56-54) to four.
Martin hit six threes and scored 22 points for UC Irvine. The Anteaters outrebounded the Miners 43-24 behind Ioannis Dimakopoulos’ double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds).
Omega Harris scored 19 points and Dominic Artis added 14 for the Miners, who once again battled heavy foul trouble. They were whistled for 26 fouls in all, with Kelvin Jones, Thomas and Willms all failing to make it to the finish line.
“The whistle has bothered us this weekend,” Floyd said. “We had four guys foul out [last night] and three guys foul out [tonight], which is absolutely absurd. We’re playing zone for 40 minutes and you would think that you wouldn’t foul in a zone, right? That’s the idea behind playing a zone. But they showed us. We did foul I guess. We’ll go back and look at it, grow and look at those fouls and pull them out and see if we can do a better job of trying to stay in the game.”
All in all, though, the Miners felt good about their effort, if not the outcome.
“I thought we played better, I thought we played harder, I thought we played inspired and I thought we played together,” Floyd said. “I saw Omega Harris try to take his first charge in three years tonight and got excited. I wish he had gotten the whistle and he didn’t. Jake Flaggert tries to take about eight a game. Kelvin is obviously learning. We have to have some quality minutes from him game in and game out. Matt’s better than he was coming into the weekend and that’s so encouraging. Maybe he’s turning the corner a little bit.”
The Miners will take a short holiday break before wrapping up the non-conference portion of their schedule with a game at NM State on Dec. 30. That will begin a string of four consecutive road games, including three in a row to tip off Conference USA play.
“We’ve got a tough one with the Aggies when we get back, and then we open up with three games on the road in our league and then we come back for four home games,” Floyd said. “I would give anything to be able to get two out of three on the road and see if we can come back and build on the effort we had tonight.”