DENTON, TEXAS – Matt Willms dunked off Evan Gilyard’s alley oop pass with three seconds remaining, propelling UTEP to a 68-66 victory at North Texas on Saturday.
The Miners (11-19, 6-12 C-USA) secured a spot in the Conference USA Basketball Championships presented by Baylor Scott & White Sports Performance Center at The Star. UTEP, the 12 seed, will face fifth seed UTSA (18-13, 11-7 C-USA) on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. CT/5:30 p.m. MT in Frisco. The game will be streamed on Facebook.
UTEP fended off North Texas (15-16, 8-10 C-USA) on Saturday in a game that featured 16 ties and 14 lead changes.
“It was a hard fought game,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “We knew it was going to be because they’re playing for seeding and we’re playing to get in the tournament. We needed to win on the road. We hadn’t played very well on the road. We felt like we didn’t really play as well as we should have at Rice [Thursday]. That was obviously a setback, and for our guys to come back and play well tonight was really a tribute to them.”
The game was tied 10 times in the second half, the last at 66-66 when the Mean Green’s A.J. Lawson split two free throws.
Evan Gilyard, off a high pick by Willms, drove into the lane and dished to Willms for the game winner. North Texas’ Ryan Woolridge missed a three-pointer from near midcourt as time expired.
The Miners held North Texas to 41.1 percent shooting and did the job on the no. 4 scorer in C-USA, Roosevelt Smart, who was held to 16 points (four below his average) on 4-of-12 shooting.
“I thought we played terrific defense,” Johnson said. “We fouled too much probably, but it was a great win on the road against a real good North Texas team. It guarantees us getting in the tournament. I know UTEP historically shouldn’t be talking about getting in the tournament, but it is what it is. We’re proud to be in and really proud to represent Miner nation.”
The Miners got some big minutes from their three seniors. Omega Harris scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds. Willms had seven points, six boards and two blocks. Jake Flaggert gave UTEP some valuable minutes in the second half, taking a charge and hitting a three-pointer with 9:07 play that put the Miners ahead 52-50. And Gilyard was dynamite in the second half, scoring 12 of his 16 points. He was perfect from the field (4-for-4) and the line (3-for-3) in the second half and scored seven consecutive points down the stretch prior to finding Willms for the winning bucket.
“Omega and Matt, we’re really counting on those two guys,” Johnson said. “Omega in the first half made a bunch of big shots. He took the role of guarding Roosevelt Smart and tried to shade him and not let him touch the ball. I think he did a nice job. Matt had a lot better game tonight than he did at Rice. I know he was disappointed with how he played at Rice, and he wanted to make amends for that. Evan made some huge plays for us and showed a lot of heart, and I really give him a lot of credit. Jake came off the bench in the second half and really defended and hit a huge three. He’s back at home here with his family, so I’m really happy to see Jake help us win a game.”
Isiah Osborne was also big for the Miners with 17 points and seven boards.
UTEP shot 51 percent and outrebounded the Mean Green 18-17 in the second half. North Texas won the battle of the boards by a slim margin, 36-33, and scored 11 of its 16 second-chance points in the first half.
The Miners took a 16-12 lead early, but the Mean Green scored the next 12 points. Trailing 26-19 at the five-minute mark, the Miners began to chip away behind Harris, who scored 14 points in the first half. He scored the next four points for UTEP, which closed the half with a 9-3 spurt to get within one (29-28) at the break.
The Miners took their biggest lead of six (41-35) on a basket by Willms with 15:12 to go, but it was a seesaw battle after that.