HOUSTON, TEXAS – Paul Thomas scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, and UTEP led from start to finish for the first time this season in a 79-71 victory at Rice on Saturday night.
The Miners (11-15, 9-5 C-USA) maintained a share of third-place in the Conference USA standings. UTEP is tied with Old Dominion with four games remaining. The Monarchs will come to El Paso on March 2.
UTEP jumped out to a 16-6 lead, led by as many as 14 in the second half and met every charge by the Owls (18-9, 8-6 C-USA), who had their five-game win streak snapped.
“I thought the biggest key for us tonight was they had zero fast break points,” UTEP coach Tim Floyd said. “We had been very poor the previous game over at North Texas.”
The Owls were averaging 82.1 points and scored 71. They were shooting 39.9 percent from three-point range and finished 8-for-29 (.276) from beyond the arc. They were shooting 47.5 percent from the field and were harassed into a 34.5 percent (20-for-58) night.
It was a total team effort as the Miners battled foul trouble all night. Matt Willms was limited to 23 minutes before fouling out. Jake Flaggert and Thomas ended the game with four fouls.
The Miners crushed Rice in the paint, 24-10. In a role reversal, they shot 64.3 percent (9-for-14) from three-point land. They enjoyed a slim 35-33 advantage on the boards and turned it over 14 times, but only five times in the second half.
“Our older guys are playing really well – Omega Harris, Dominic Artis, and keeping us organized offensively,” Floyd said. “Trey Touchet has become somebody that also gives us a sense of calm when he’s on the floor. Jake Flaggert stepped in and took a couple of really, really big charges. I thought Matt did a nice job of protecting the paint. Teams are doubling Matt. It’s a new thing for him, but I think that he is making everybody better by getting it out and we’re taking the shots in rhythm just because it’s continuing to go inside.”
Artis scored 16 points with six rebounds, seven assists and three steals. Harris scored 15 points with an efficient shooting night (6-for-10 FGs, 3-for-4 3FGs). Flaggert was 3-for-3 from long range, all in the second half. Thomas made 7-of-9 shots and added 11 rebounds for his fifth career double-double.
Rice’s three big guns – Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov and Marcus Jackson – combined to score 31 points on 7-for-26 shooting from the field, 4-for-18 from three.
“Obviously Paul Thomas had a great weekend,” Floyd said. “Key numbers were Jackson made two field goals and he had been averaging 20. Give Dominic Artis great, great credit for that. Jackson, a guy who averaged 12.5 and killed us in the past, Omega Harris did a terrific job there. I thought Jake and Trey both did a great job on Koulechov and kept those guys from getting their heads up and torturing us from the three-point line because it is a very, very dangerous three-point shooting team. It’s a nice win.”
The Miners saw a 10-point lead shrink to five (29-24) at halftime. They started the second half strong and went up by 14 (46-32) on a three-pointer by Flaggert with 14:23 to go. Jackson pulled the Owls within seven (66-59) on a three-pointer with 4:13 remaining. The Miners scored the next four points to put the Owls on life support.
“We are playing with a lot of confidence and the ball is moving as well,” Floyd said. “It seems like the earlier we play in the clock, the worse we are and the better we are when the ball is moving and really coming back around the horn. I’m just proud of our guys for understanding that the only way we could get out of this hole that we were in early is guarding our way out. That’s what happened. We have become a pretty darned good defensive club.”
The Miners, 9-2 in their last 11 games, will continue a four-game road swing at Florida Atlantic (Thursday) and FIU (Saturday) next week.
“We’ll have two very difficult tasks,” Floyd said. “It took us three overtimes to beat these teams. We know that they have both gotten a lot better. They will be two real tests for our team and we’ll hope to have a good week before we go out to Miami.”