CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Paul Thomas hit the go-ahead jumper with 2.6 seconds left, and UTEP topped Charlotte 87-86 on Thursday at Halton Arena for its first road win of the season.
“We ran a little stagger for Isiah [Osborne] to come off, thinking that they would come to Isiah and Paul was going to slip towards the ball and sure enough, he got free and went strong to the basket,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said.
The Miners (8-17, 3-10 C-USA) took a major step towards a berth in the Conference USA Championship in a wild basketball game. UTEP led by as many as 22 points in the first half, fell behind by seven with about six minutes to go, then rallied past the 49ers (5-19, 1-12 C-USA).
“It was a crazy game,” Johnson said. “They had a guy [Luka Vasic] that had made one three in conference play and he makes four tonight. They made their run by hitting threes and really, we were helping off those guys and not expecting it but they looked like Reggie Miller out there shooting the ball. They came back and when teams make a run at you, you get a little tight and that’s what happened. We just wanted to keep scoring and keep grinding and we had three or four big stops in the last two minutes.”
Both teams were hot from long range, as UTEP made 11-of-20 from beyond the arc and Charlotte was 14-for-24. But the Miners, 9-for-12 from three-point territory in the first half, cooled off to 2-for-8 over the final 20 minutes and Charlotte stayed hot throughout.
The Miners played about as well as can be in the first eight minutes, rolling out to a 29-7 lead. UTEP started 10-for-13 from the field, 5-for-5 from three-point range and 4-for-4 from the line.
Charlotte scored the next seven points – all from Andrien White — to get within 15 (29-14). But the Miners responded with an 11-4 spurt, including seven straight points by Paul Thomas, to match their largest lead of the half at 40-18.
After the 49ers closed the gap to 13 (42-29), Kobe Magee hit back-to-back triples off the bench to push the lead to 19. But Charlotte ended the period with a 16-5 run, and pulled within eight (53-45) at the break. Austin Ajukwa, averaging 7.8 points per game, scored 13 of the 49ers’ last 16 points in the half. He finished with a season-high 24, and scored 22 of Charlotte’s 32 points at the end of the first half and beginning of the second.
Jon Davis’ jumper with 15:24 remaining put Charlotte ahead 63-61, its first lead since 2-0. The next several minutes were nip and tuck until the 49ers gained some separation with a 9-3 run, ending with a three-pointer by Jaylan McGill and an 82-75 lead with 5:59 to go.
But the Miners persevered when the situation appeared dire.
“That’s my biggest challenge, to keep the guys relaxed and play hard and keep them competitive,” Johnson said. “I’m really proud of the team because we had a great practice last night and came and fought our butts off here today. It was a great basketball game. I give Charlotte credit. They played too. It was as hard fought of a game as we’ve seen this season.”
Charlotte scored four points in the final 5:58 with one field goal and the Miners went to work on the offensive end, outscoring the 49ers 12-4 and finally regaining the lead on Thomas’ game winner.
Evan Gilyard scored a career-high 22 points, and Osborne added 21 for the Miners. Thomas recorded his second straight double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“We started Evan tonight for two reasons,” Johnson said. “He was great in practice last night. But defensively on Davis, he did a pretty good job until he got in foul trouble. And Isiah, we’ve seen him in the past where he can really shoot it and drive it. We tried to get him more involved tonight.”
White scored 21 points for Charlotte and Davis had 12.
The Miners will continue their road trip at Old Dominion on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. MT, and the game will be streamed live on ESPN3.