Undersized and undermanned, the UTEP Miners have won three straight games to carry momentum into this weekend’s 56th Annual WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational.
They’ll chase their first title since 2014 when the ball is tipped up against the Howard Bison on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Haskins Center.
Joining UTEP (4-6) and Howard (2-11) in the tournament are North Dakota State (5-6) and UNC Wilmington (2-7), who will square off at 5 p.m. on Thursday. The consolation game is on Friday at 5, with the championship to follow at 7.
The Miners, who were down to eight scholarship players in Tuesday’s 72-66 triumph over Incarnate Word, may add Isiah Osborne to their mix this weekend. The sophomore guard has been battling strep throat.
“He looks skinnier than I do and probably more out of shape than I am, and that’s hard to beat,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “But I just told him to get some running in here and get your strength back. Hopefully we’ll try to bring him back into the fold and he’ll play some this week.”
The Miners have averaged 78.7 points per game during the win streak, shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 75 percent from the line. They scored 32 points off turnovers on Tuesday, their top total in a game in eight years.
“We’re not a finished product by any means,” Johnson said. “In fact, I told our team we’re probably playing somewhere near 30 percent what I think we can play on both ends of the floor, and particularly defensively. And with that said, we gave up  points in a half [on Tuesday] and I thought it was poor. I thought it was not as good as it needs to be. But I’m happy with the win, and we’re getting ready for a tremendous event. I think all four teams are good teams. I don’t care what the records are. I look at Howard and who they’ve played in these guarantee games to raise money against Georgetown, Indiana and many others, and how they have hung in there and fought hard. We have watched film of them. I’m really impressed with their talent and the job that they’re doing.”
The Bison has played 10 of its first 13 games on the road. Howard has split its last two games, beating Washington Adventist at home on Dec. 14 (76-65) before dropping a 62-60 decision at Jacksonville State on Dec. 18. Freshman guard R.J. Cole has taken a big bite out of the Bison offense, averaging 20.4 ppg (Howard averages 68.2 ppg as a team). Cole, who prepped at St. Anthony High School in Union, N.J., is shooting 36 percent from the field, 33.7 percent from outside (team-leading 32 three-point field goals) and 83.5 percent from the line. He scored his season-best 30 points versus Washington Adventist and has compiled 27 points twice (against Indiana and Jacksonville State).
Sophomore guard/forward Charles Williams is second on the team in scoring (18 ppg), while freshman forward Zion Cousins produces a team-high 7.6 rebounds per outing. The Bison has been a good free throw shooting team (.735 percentage), but has struggled on the boards (-8.3 rebound margin). This is a young squad as four of the top five scorers are freshmen.
After Howard, the Miners will face either UNC Wilmington, which went to the NCAA Tournament and won 29 games last season, or North Dakota State, which is coming off a 19-victory campaign.
“We’ll have to play very well to have a chance to win any games in this event,” Johnson said.
UTEP PARTICIPATES IN 56TH ANNUAL SUN BOWL TOURNEY
Winners of three straight games, the UTEP Miners (4-6) take part in the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational on Thursday and Friday (Dec. 21-22) in the Haskins Center. Thursday’s matchups are North Dakota State (5-6) versus UNC Wilmington (2-7) at 5 p.m., and UTEP versus Howard (2-11) at 7 p.m. The consolation game is at 5 on Friday, with the championship to follow at 7. UNC Wilmington posted 29 victories a year ago and participated in the NCAA Tournament, while North Dakota State fashioned a 19-win campaign. UTEP has posted an all-time record of 84-26 in the Sun Bowl Invitational. The Miners have won titles on 31 occasions and played in the championship game 43 times (there was no championship game in 2010). The event originated in 1961 as the Sun Carnival Basketball Tournament and took Don Haskins’ name in 2009.
ON THE AIR
The English radio broadcast is available on KOFX 92.3 FM with Jon Teicher (play-by-play) and Steve Yellen (color) calling the action. A Spanish radio broadcast is available on ESPN Deportes 1650 AM, with Omar Ropele on the mike.
SUN BOWL INVITATIONAL EXPERIENCE
Five players on the UTEP roster have participated in the Sun Bowl Invitational — Jake Flaggert (six games), Omega Harris (six games), Paul Thomas (four games), Trey Touchet (four games) and Matt Willms (six games). Harris has averaged 13.5 ppg in the tournament with a .484 (15-for-31) three-point field goal percentage. Willms has made 20-of-30 shots (.667) in the Sun Bowl Invitational, averaging 8.7 points.
The Bison has played 10 of its first 13 games on the road and is 2-11 thus far in 2017-18 (2-1 at home, 0-10 on the road). Howard has split its last two games, beating Washington Adventist at home on Dec. 14 (76-65) before dropping a 62-60 decision at Jacksonville State on Dec. 18. Freshman guard R.J. Cole has taken a big bite out of the Bison offense, averaging 20.4 ppg (Howard averages 68.2 ppg as a team). Cole, who prepped at St. Anthony High School in Union, N.J., is shooting 36 percent from the field, 33.7 percent from outside (team-leading 32 three-point field goals) and 83.5 percent from the line. He scored his season-best 30 points versus Washington Adventist and has compiled 27 points twice (against Indiana and Jacksonville State). Overall, Cole has seven 20-point games on the year. He rated 21st nationally in assists per game (6.4), 23rd in three-point field goal attempts (95) and 25th in free throw attempts (85) through Dec. 19. Sophomore guard/forward Charles Williams is second on the team in scoring (18 ppg), while freshman forward Zion Cousins produces a team-high 7.6 rebounds per outing. As a team, Howard averages 7.6 three-pointers made and 23.5 attempts per contest. The Bison has been a good free throw shooting team (.735 percentage), but has struggled on the boards (-8.3 rebound margin). This is a young squad as four of the top five scorers are freshmen.
The Miners lead the series 1-0. UTEP topped Howard, 73-56, in the UTEP Metromobile Invitational on Dec. 5, 1987 in El Paso.
THE LAST MEETING
Tim Hardaway scored 16 points to lead five Miners in double figures as they broke away from a 33-33 halftime deadlock and beat Howard, 73-56, on Dec. 5, 1987 in El Paso. UTEP outscored the Bison 40-23 in the second half. The game was tied at 39 with about 15 minutes remaining, and the Miners were only up by six (51-45) around the 10-minute mark. But UTEP went on a 15-3 run over the next five minutes and surged to a 66-48 lead. Wayne Campbell scored 15 points for the Miners, while Chris Blocker added 12, Jerry Jones 11 and Antonio Davis 10. The Miners had a 24-13 advantage in made free throws and outrebounded the Bison 35-25 led by Campbell (eight boards). UTEP also forced 20 turnovers.
With only eight scholarship players available due to injuries and illness, UTEP battled back to upend Incarnate Word for its third consecutive victory, 72-66, on Tuesday at the Haskins Center. UTEP was minus Isiah Osborne (strep throat) and Matt Willms, who is recovering from a broken hand, as well as Trey Wade, who was out of town with family following the passing of his grandmother. The Miners were also coming off a 10-day break between games, and the rust showed throughout.
But UTEP finally got going after UIW took a six-point lead, 49-43, midway through the second half. What followed was a 10-1 run, which ended with UTEP back in front 53-50. The Miners wouldn’t trail again, although UIW closed to within a point (56-55) on a three-pointer by Simi Socks with 5:57 remaining. UTEP responded with a 11-2 run, upping the ante to 67-57 with about two minutes left. The Miners were able to close it out despite a subpar night at the free throw line (12-for-23, 52.2 percent). Smith gave the Miners a major boost inside, making 7-of-11 shots while pulling down six rebounds.
Paul Thomas led UTEP with 16 points, while Omega Harris had 15 and Kobe Magee scored all 12 of his points in the second half. Socks led the Cardinals with 21 points. UIW outrebounded UTEP 33-30, although the Miners won the battle of the boards (18-16) after halftime. The Miners shot 61.5 percent in the second half, when they outscored UIW 44-38. It was a sloppy game on both sides, as UTEP finished with 18 turnovers to the Cardinals’ 25. The Miners scored 32 points off turnovers, and UIW scored 22.
Following a six-game losing skid, UTEP has reeled off three victories in a row for the first time since a five-game win streak from Feb. 11-25, 2017. The Miners are 3-0 in the month of December for the first time since 2010. UTEP won its first four games in December that year and finished 6-1 for the month.
BREAKING DOWN THE STREAK
During their three-game win streak, the Miners have averaged 78.7 points per game (they averaged 65.6 ppg in the first seven games of the season). UTEP has also hiked its field goal percentage from .412 to .491 (81-for-165), and its free throw percentage from .656 to .750 (54-for-72). The Miners have a turnover margin of +4.3 per game during the streak, compared to -0.3 in the first seven contests. The win streak has coincided with senior guard Omega Harris and junior forward Paul Thomas looking more like themselves. Harris is averaging 20.3 ppg during the streak, shooting 61.3 percent (19-for-31) from the field, 70 percent (7-for-10) from three and 84.2 percent (16-for-19) from the line. Thomas is averaging 12.3 ppg during the streak with a field goal percentage of .556 (15-for-27). In the first seven games, Harris averaged 9.4 ppg and Thomas 7.4 ppg.
SO FAR SO GOOD UNDER PHIL
UTEP moved to 3-1 under Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson with Tuesday’s 72-66 triumph over Incarnate Word. The four-game start is the best by a UTEP rookie head coach since Tim Floyd was also 3-1 to start his Miner tenure during the 2010-11 season. Three other Miner coaches won at least three of their first four games on the bench — Jason Rabedeaux (3-1), Doc Sadler (3-1) and Tony Barbee (3-1). Only Sadler got to 4-1 during the 2004-05 campaign.
UTEP has averaged 84 points per game in its four victories this season, as six players have averaged at least 10 points per game (Omega Harris 18.3 ppg, Keith Frazier 14.3 ppg, Paul Thomas 13.3 ppg, Isiah Osborne 10.3 ppg, Matt Willms 10.0 ppg, Trey Wade 10.0 ppg). The Miners have shot 51.5 percent from the field (118-for-229) in their wins and have a positive (+2.0) rebound margin. They have also forced 70 turnovers (17.5 avg.) while coughing up the basketball only 51 times (12.8 avg.). Another stat that jumps out at you in the Miners’ four victories is a 10-2 advantage in blocked shots, helping lead to a .393 (86-for-219) defensive field goal percentage.
THOMAS LEADS IN POINTS, REBOUNDS
Paul Thomas has produced 365 points and 241 rebounds in 42 games for the Miners since the start of the 2016-17 season. But he has only led the team in scoring and rebounding in a game on three occasions during that span. The latest was on Tuesday versus Incarnate Word, when he tallied 16 points and eight boards. Thomas also achieved the feat in back-to-back outings at North Texas (23 points/14 rebounds) and Rice (17 points/11 rebounds) in February of this year, earning Conference USA Player of the Week honors for his efforts.
THOMAS STEPS UP
Junior forward Paul Thomas averaged 7.4 points in the first seven games of the season, but has scored in double figures in three consecutive outings for the first time in 2017-18. Thomas has been an “X-Factor” of sorts for the Miners this season as they are 4-1 when he scores in double figures. UTEP is 13-6 in Thomas’ career when he tallies 10 points or more.
Freshman forward Tirus Smith became the sixth Miner to score in double figures off the bench in a game this season when he put 15 points and six rebounds on the board versus Incarnate Word on Tuesday. Smith, who connected on 7-of-11 shots from the field, played his UTEP-best 28 minutes and led the Miners to a 22-14 edge in bench points. The other Miners who have scored in double figures in a reserve role this season are Keith Frazier (versus Appalachian State), Evan Gilyard (Washington State), Kobe Magee (New Mexico), Isiah Osborne (Louisiana College) and Trey Wade (Louisiana College & Lamar).
ANOTHER BIG HALF FOR MAGEE
Freshman guard Kobe Magee has scored in double figures twice in his young UTEP career, and put together a big half in both games. On Dec. 2 versus New Mexico, he scored 11 of his 16 points in the first 20 minutes. And on Tuesday against Incarnate Word, he scored all 12 of his points in the second half. In each half, Magee made five of his six shot attempts.
FORCING THE ISSUE
The Miners forced 25 turnovers versus Incarnate Word on Tuesday, the most by a UTEP opponent since Western New Mexico had 26 on Dec. 28, 2010. The Miners scored a season-high 32 points off turnovers versus the Cardinals, their top game total since tallying 45 against Norfolk State on Dec. 28, 2009.
Matt Willms appeared in his 100th game for UTEP versus Washington State. Willms is the second member of this year’s roster to play in 100 games as Jake Flaggert has appeared in 102 contests. Omega Harris is closing in on the century mark himself with 98 games played.
Matt Willms has collected 760 points, 448 rebounds and 109 blocks in his UTEP career. He rates seventh in school history in blocked shots. He is chasing John Tofi, who sits in sixth place with 110 rejections. Willms has blocked 11 shots in only five games this season, and tied his career-high with five versus Boise State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. His career field goal percentage of .574 (300-for-523) would rank third in the UTEP record book behind Cedrick Lang (.581) and Brandon Wolfram (.579). Willms is currently out while he continues to rehab a hand injury.
HARRIS’ CAREER HIGH
Omega Harris scored a career-high 28 points versus New Mexico on Dec. 2. The 28 points were the most by a UTEP player since Lee Moore tallied 30 against FIU in the Conference USA Tournament on March 9, 2016. Harris matched his career-best with nine field goals made against the Lobos. Harris picked up the 12th 20-point game of his college career versus UNM. The Miners are 6-0 in the last six games that Harris has scored 20 points or more (dating back to the 2016-17 season), compared to 2-4 in the first six games that he did so.
HARRIS & THE UTEP CHARTS
Omega Harris has continued his climb up the UTEP career charts in 2017-18. He is currently 23rd in scoring with 1,168 points after passing William Smith in the Incarnate Word game. He is chasing Charlie Brown (22nd, 1,170 points), Fred Reynolds (21st, 1,181 points), Juden Smith (20th, 1,182 points) and Julian Washburn (19th, 1,186 points). Harris is tied for fourth in three-point field goals (140) with Mark Ingles. He is 13th in steals (105). Harris has logged 3,077 minutes in a Miner uniform, an average of 31.4 per game. Harris is only 75 minutes away from etching his name on the all-time UTEP top-15 chart.
MINERS GETTING PRODUCTION FROM FRESHMEN PG’S
Freshmen point guards Evan Gilyard and Kobe Magee have been difference makers during the Miners’ three-game win streak. Gilyard scored all 10 of his points in the second half as UTEP rallied past Washington State, 76-69 on Dec. 9. He was 8-for-8 from the line versus the Cougars and is 18-for-20 (.900) from the stripe in 2017-18. Gilyard has made 17 of 18 free throws over the last nine games. He is tied for first on the team in steals (nine) and second in assists (19). Magee scored his season-high 16 points versus New Mexico, and added 12 points against Incarnate Word.
Grad transfer Keith Frazier picked up the third 20-point game of his young UTEP career against Washington State on Dec. 9. He led the Miners in points (21) and rebounds (eight) versus the Cougars, marking the second time he has done so in 2017-18. Frazier also paced UTEP with 22 points and 10 boards against Boise State on Nov. 16. Frazier, who scored 25 points versus Appalachian State on Nov. 19, has been the Miners’ top rebounder in five of the first 10 contests. Overall he is tied for the team lead with 13.4 ppg and rates second on the squad with 6.0 rpg. He is on pace to make 74 three-pointers over 31 games, which would be the eighth-most in a season in school history.
UTEP has received 55.5 percent of its points (386-of-695), 59 percent of its rebounds (184-of-312) and 52.8 percent of its assists (57-of-108) from players in the first year wearing the Orange and Blue uniform. A newcomer has led the Miners in scoring in seven of 10 games, and a freshman has been UTEP’s top scorer in three contests.
VETS CARRYING THE LOAD
Including grad transfer Keith Frazier, UTEP has received 48.3 percent of its points (336-of-695), 43.6 percent of its rebounds (136-of-312) and 42.6 percent of its assists (46-of-108) from players who are in their final year in the Orange and Blue. The Miners’ top three scorers are Frazier (13.4 ppg), senior Matt Willms (13.4 ppg) and senior Omega Harris (12.7 ppg). If that holds up, UTEP’s top three scorers would be seniors for the first time since 2010-11 when the top five scorers (Randy Culpepper, Christian Polk, Jeremy Williams, Julyan Stone, Claude Britten) were in their final year of eligibility.
UTEP has utilized eight different starting lineups in the first 10 games of the season. Omega Harris and Paul Thomas are the only players to start every game. All 11 scholarship players have made starts in 2017-18 after nine players started last season.
While Jake Flaggert has traditionally been known as the Miners’ resident “charge drawer,” a freshman duo has gotten into the act in 2017-18. Evan Gilyard and Tirus Smith lead the squad with five charges drawn each. Together they have accounted for 71.4 percent (10-of-14) of the Miners’ charges drawn this season.
JAKE TAKES CHARGE
Jake Flaggert led Conference USA in charges drawn in both 2015-16 (18) and 2016-17 (33). He has taken four charges in limited action this season, giving him 61 in his career.