SAN ANTONIO – Giovanni De Nicolao scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half and made several big plays down the stretch as UTSA rallied to defeat short-handed UTEP 65-61 on Saturday at the Convocation Center.
The Miners (7-12, 2-5 C-USA) only got 10 minutes from Matt Willms before he exited with an injury, and played most of the second half without Paul Thomas who got in foul trouble. They almost held on for an inspired victory, leading for over 34 minutes of the game, but it was the Roadrunners (10-10, 3-4 C-USA) who came up big late.
“We played really good basketball for about 75 percent of the game and obviously we got into some foul trouble and had to go to our bench a little bit,” UTEP assistant coach Bobby Braswell said. “Losing Matt is a big blow to us. A bunch of little things didn’t go our way, but our guys really fought. Our guys really gave a great effort. They were locked in, they were tuned in to what we were trying to do defensively and offensively. I have a lot of respect for our guys for what they did tonight. Miner fans should be proud. They showed a lot of heart and played extremely tough tonight against a team that made some big plays down the stretch, and we weren’t able to do that.”
After UTSA opened the game with a three-pointer the Miners scored eight straight points, part of a 21-2 run. UTEP led 21-5 when Kobe Magee hit a jumper at the 12:21 mark.
“We did just a great job of executing the game plan, and a lot of it had to do with what we were doing defensively,” Braswell said. “We were able to get some early run outs because we were able to get them to take some shots they’re probably not used to taking. We defended really well and then offensively we came down and had a really good flow. Isiah [Osborne] got off to a hot start for us and Kobe played really well at the very beginning of the game. Those things really helped us. I thought we played unselfishly and we didn’t turn the ball over.”
The Miners led 26-16 when Willms went out with 10:23 remaining in the half. Within two minutes, the Roadrunners cut the deficit in half (28-23). UTEP led 42-38 at halftime.
Thomas had one foul at halftime. Ninety seconds into the second half, he had four. He played six minutes in the second half.
“The three fouls Paul got early in the half, and then you take Matt out of the mix, that’s really our inside game right now without Tirus Smith being here,” Braswell said. “You’ve got to give their coaches credit, a really smart move to not only play a zone but [they] extended their zone out to our shooters and made it really hard for us to get open shots on the perimeter. We just didn’t have the inside game the way we normally would against that zone. That was really tough. But our guys made a great effort.”
The Miners scored 19 points in the second half, when they shot 20.8 percent (5-for-24) from the field and 13.3 percent (2-for-15) from three-point territory. UTSA only scored 27 and shot 33.3 percent, but it was enough to win.
De Nicolao’s layup with 6:50 to play put UTSA in the lead (54-53) for the first time since it was 3-2. That was the start of 10 straight points that he scored for the Roadrunners.
Still, the Miners took a 61-60 lead with 41 seconds left when Evan Gilyard fed Thomas for a basket down low. But Nick Allen gave UTSA the lead for good, 62-61, on a jumper with 24 seconds remaining. Then Omega Harris turned it over, and Jhivvan Jackson converted the miscue into a layup. Osborne missed a three, and the game was all but over.
“We ran that play down there at the end and we got it to Paul down on the baseline and he scored and we had a one-point lead and really, all we had to do was get a stop. We weren’t able to get a stop,” Braswell said. “We weren’t able to get that stop that we needed. We’ve been talking about defending better in the second half. Tonight we did that. They only scored 27 points in the second half, and they shot 33 percent from the floor in the second half. So we did our job defensively, we just had a struggle on the offensive end. It’s going to be great, it’s going to be exciting once we’re able to put the offense and the defense together in one game.”
Osborne led the Miners with 20 points. Thomas added 12 points. Keaton Wallace scored 20 points off the bench for UTSA. The Miners did a bang-up job on the Roadrunners’ top player, Jhivvan Jackson. Making his first start, he scored 11 points, making 3-of-14 shots and 1-of-9 three pointers.
“Omega did a great job on him tonight,” Braswell said. “He had a tough assignment and I think people don’t realize when you’re assigned to a tough offensive guy like that, it takes a lot of energy from you. Omega only got four shots up the entire game. He’s got to get more shots up than that. We’re not going to win if Omega is only taking four shots in the game.”
UTEP will continue a three-game C-USA road swing at UAB on Thursday. Tip-off is 6 p.m. MT and the game will be televised on beIN Sports.