Omega Harris scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half as UTEP rallied from an 11-point deficit and beat UAB, 63-59, on Thursday night at the Haskins Center for its fifth win in six games.
“I thought our crowd was just great,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We were down nine [at halftime], couldn’t make a shot, came out in the second half and just an educated UTEP crowd reacted to two or three defensive stops, layups, runouts going the other way, and got behind our guys. Our guys started believing a little bit. They needed that in the worst way.”
The Miners (7-14, 5-4 C-USA) moved above .500 in Conference USA play while knocking the defending C-USA regular season champion Blazers (14-9, 7-3 C-USA) three games behind league leader Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders, winners of 10 straight, will come to the Haskins Center for a 6 p.m. showdown on Saturday.
UTEP shot 31.8 percent in the first half but found its offensive groove over the final 20 minutes, shooting 57.7 percent and outscoring UAB 44-31. After getting dominated on the boards in the first half, the Miners posted a slim rebounding advantage (16-15) after halftime. They also committed just three turnovers in the second half.
“We had given up 37 percent at halftime and we were down nine,” Floyd said. “At one point we were shooting nine percent from the floor. In the first half we had wide-open looks and just kept playing. The team is maturing from the standpoint that we didn’t let our lack of offense influence us on the defensive end. We just kept guarding. We got a couple traps and steals out of a little halfcourt press that coach [Bobby] Braswell put out and it really, really helped us. Coach [Phil] Johnson had a great plan with the man to man defense on the other end. We got a little help out of the box and one.”
A 21-6 run in the second half turned a 36-29 deficit into a 50-42 lead. Harris scored eight points in the run, and Dominic Artis finished it off with a three-pointer and a layup off his own steal. The Miners scored eight points off eight UAB turnovers in the second half, and Artis registered four of his career-high tying five steals after halftime.
The Blazers cut a 10-point UTEP lead (56-46) down to three on three separate occasions over the last two minutes, but the Miners made just enough timely buckets down the stretch to finish them off.
Harris was 7-for-10 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line in the second half. Artis collected 11 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Matt Willms had 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
“Omega probably had his best half as a Miner in the second half when we really needed buckets, needed somebody to make a play,” Floyd said. “D.A. had a couple of nice plays out of high screen and roll, throws to Matt for a lob dunk and turned the corner and got it to the rim once or twice. He was really struggling from the field. He got to the rim and made a layup and he kind of got his head up and made a three.”
The Miners shot 45.8 percent with only 10 turnovers. UAB shot 39.3 percent and outrebounded UTEP 39-32. Both teams struggled at the line with UTEP finishing 15-for-25 and UAB 9-for-18. The Miners were much better at the stripe in the second half (11-for-15).
“Our team still has so much room for growth,” Floyd said. “I think we can shoot it better than we shot it. It was nice to see Jake [Flaggert] make a couple tonight. I’m real proud of our guys. Trey [Touchet] gave us some solid minutes, didn’t turn it over. We handled their full court pressure really well with one exception when we threw it length of the floor out of bounds but kind of regrouped. It’s fun to watch them grow.”
The Miners will have their hands full on Saturday but will try to keep the hot streak going.
“I just hope our crowd will come back out here Saturday night and regroup again and recognize and try to admire the fact that we are a team in progress, a team that’s growing,” Floyd said. “We’re going to play a team that in my opinion is a top-15 team in the country. It will be another great test.”
GALLERY BY Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer – El Paso Herald-Post