BIRMINGHAM, ALA. – Middle Tennessee turned in a stifling defensive effort and took advantage of 18 UTEP turnovers in ending the Miners’ season with an 82-56, Conference USA Championship semifinal victory on Friday at Legacy Arena.
The Blue Raiders (29-4) avenged a 57-54 loss at UTEP in early February while setting a school record for victories and advancing to Saturday’s title game. The Miners’ season ends at 15-17. UTEP started the year 2-13 before finishing 13-4 and tying for third place in C-USA.
“Middle Tennessee is a terrific team,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “If the NCAA does not take them to the tournament should something negative go on tomorrow, there’s a real, real problem with that. They led our league in basically every statistical category, and those same categories they won tonight – assist/turnover ratio, rebounding margin, defensive points allowed, and they did a great job in all those areas.”
The Blue Raiders scored 25 points off UTEP turnovers. Middle Tennessee reverted to form following an uncharacteristic performance in El Paso where the Miners scored 15 points off 19 Blue Raider giveaways.
Middle Tennessee also outrebounded UTEP 41-30, with 12 offensive rebounds leading to 10 second-chance points. The Miners shot 39.2 percent from the field, as Middle Tennessee neutralized senior guard Dominic Artis (six points, 2-for-10 field goals) in his final college game.
“They’ve got a well-coached team,” Floyd said. “They play well together, they move the ball well, and they force turnovers that other teams in our league don’t. They forced a lot of turnovers today with our ballclub. I thought our kids tried. We just weren’t very good today, and it had a lot to do with Middle Tennessee and their approach to the game.”
The Miners led once, at 2-0. They hung in for the first 10 minutes, trailing 17-12. Then the Blue Raiders scored six consecutive points – a three-point play by Reggie Upshaw, a three-pointer by Xavier Habersham – and pushed the lead to 11 (23-12). UTEP got within seven (25-18) on two free throws by Omega Harris with 4:38 remaining in the half. Middle Tennessee answered with six in a row once again. At halftime, the Blue Raiders led 37-23.
The Miners fell behind 40-23 to start the second half. They got within 15 twice, but that was it as the Blue Raiders blew out to a 29-point lead.
Reggie Upshaw, very quiet in the El Paso matchup, led the Blue Raiders with 18 points and eight rebounds. Giddy Potts scored 14, JaCorey Williams 13 and Antwain Johnson 11 off the bench. The Blue Raiders recorded 16 assists, including a game-high five from Tyrik Dixon, and nine turnovers. Potts swiped five of Middle Tennessee’s 12 steals, the most by a UTEP opponent this season.
Paul Thomas had an excellent game for the Miners. He scored 18 points, making 7-of-10 shots and 4-of-6 free throws. Harris scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half.
Artis, so good during the Miners’ 13-4 run to close out the season, ended his college career with 1,215 points, 484 rebounds, 502 assists and 163 steals. He is the first player in school history to lead the team in rebounds, assists and steals in a season. His 187 assists this season are third-most in school history.
UTEP will add a host of reinforcements to a solid nucleus of returning players for 2017-18. The book closes on a truly inspirational 2016-17 campaign.
“It flipped from being a really, really poor basketball team through the first week in January to a team that was a real problem for people the last couple of months,” Floyd said. “It’s a real testament to guys taking responsibility for their inadequacies, coaches as well, and not pointing the finger, making the determination to self-improve and what can come from that when you’ve got a common goal in mind. I was extremely, extremely proud of our team.”
The Miners finish the season with Harris averaging 17.0 ppg, Artis 15.0 ppg, Matt Willms 11.4 ppg and Thomas 8.6 ppg. Jake Flaggert took 33 charges. Deon Barrett, Kelvin Jones and Trey Touchet grew in leaps and bounds off the bench.
“I came in here every single day the last two months knowing that it was a team committed to getting better,” Floyd said. “It transferred into wins, and it transferred into great camaraderie. Dominic Artis should get the lion’s share of the credit for that, being a senior. He chose not to play for himself, but to try to keep us organized and play with heart. I thought he did that.
“I told the guys in the locker room, I don’t recall one of my teams where I could look at the seven guys who were playing a lot at the end of the season and say, ‘Each one of you guys improved as much as any guy that I’ve had on any team.’ Every single guy got better, and they were fun to work with.”