File: Matt Willms
BOWLING GREEN, KY. – UTEP nearly came all the way back from a 21-point deficit, but Jake Flaggert’s long three fell short at the buzzer and WKU held on for a 65-62 win over the Miners on Thursday at E.A. Diddle Arena.
The Hilltoppers (10-11, 4-4 C-USA) snapped a four-game losing streak while handing UTEP (5-14, 3-4 C-USA) its first defeat in four games.
“We’re growing,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We got off to a really shaky start. Fouls were a real problem in the first half with Paul [Thomas] and Omega [Harris]. It really put us in a bind. When we went to the bench, we didn’t get any point production from those guys during that time. They really struggled between Deon [Barrett], Trey [Touchet] and Jake at the three-point line. We were 2-for-15 [from three]. If we make just one more three we tie it, and two we win it.”
WKU blitzed the Miners with a 26-5 start, as Pancake Thomas made his first five three-point attempts. Thomas scored 19 points in the first half, shooting 6-for-7 from the field, 5-for-6 from three and 2-for-2 from the line.
UTEP got within 10 late in the first half, but WKU ended the period on an 11-4 run and was up 46-29 heading to the locker room.
The Miners battled heavy foul trouble in the first half. Thomas played only six minutes and, like Harris, ended the half with three personals.
Thomas, who had scored in double figures in three straight games and four of the previous five, was never able to get in sync and played only 17 minutes with no points and one rebound before fouling out.
Offsetting Thomas’ off night was a career-high 27 points from Matt Willms, who made 13-of-16 shots. Willms scored 16 points in the second half, when he was 8-for-9 from the floor.
The Miners outscored WKU 33-19 in the second half, holding the Hilltoppers to 25 percent shooting (7-for-28) from the field and 23.1 percent (3-for-13) from three.
“It was coach [Bobby] Braswell’s point zone,” Floyd said. “It was just tremendous. We put it in. We probably should’ve opened in it and we didn’t. We went to it basically out of necessity because of foul trouble. We didn’t want to foul in the second half. It was very, very effective for us tonight.”
UTEP was also able to keep WKU off the line over the last 20 minutes. In the first half, the Hilltoppers were 14-for-19 from the charity stripe; in the second half, they were 2-for-4.
UTEP opened the second half with a 17-9 run to get within nine (55-46), and remained within striking distance the rest of the game. The Miners got it down to five three times (59-54, 61-56, 63-58), and finally pulled within three on a dunk by Willms with 1:16 remaining.
Justin Johnson, who scored all six of WKU’s points over the final 11:47, made a layup with 46 seconds remaining to extend the lead to 65-60. Dominic Artis made it a one-possession game again on a jumper with eight seconds left. After Thomas missed the front end of the one-and-one, Harris inbounded the ball to Flaggert near midcourt with 3.5 seconds left. Flaggert dribbled once and let it fly, but his shot was short of the rim and Johnson rebounded the miss.
Harris scored 15 points, and Artis had yet another triple-double near-miss with 14 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
Thomas led WKU with 25 points, and Johnson scored 15 with 12 rebounds.
“We made eight more field goals than they did on the road,” Floyd said. “We held a team on the road to 36 percent shooting, which is great. We limit our turnovers to 10. We fought it on the boards all night long against a really physical team. They got to the free throw line and I scratch my head how they do that. We play zone all night and they play man and that frustrates me, because we’re throwing it inside all night and expect to have a better opportunity to get to the foul line, which we didn’t do. Give them credit for not fouling, I guess.”
The Miners will play at Marshall on Saturday. Tip-off is at 5 p.m. MT.
“We saw Paul Thomas get better last week,” Floyd said. “We watched Matt Willms get better today. We watched Dominic Artis get better here tonight. He played a tremendous floor game with nine assists and one turnover. We are proud of our guys. There was no quit in us tonight, a lot of fight. That will help us as we continue to build.”