UTEP committed 12 of its 16 turnovers in the second half, with many coming in critical situations down the stretch as WKU escaped the Haskins Center with a 72-60 victory on Thursday.
The Miners (7-15, 2-8 C-USA), opening a three-game homestand, hung with the Hilltoppers (16-6, 8-1 C-USA) throughout. But they coughed up the basketball six times in the last six minutes, including five times over the final 3:35, and that proved to be too much to overcome.
“Their 1-3-1 [zone defense] bothered us,” UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “I thought we were really prepared for it and worked a lot against it, and I thought we’d make them pay. I really thought we’d go score and not turn it over and we had some critical turnovers. You can’t win with 16 turnovers. We did some good things for about 32 minutes, and unfortunately it’s a 40-minute game.”
UTEP was ahead 32-30 at halftime and took its biggest lead, 42-38, on a three-point play by Omega Harris with 16:35 remaining. WKU responded with a 13-2 run to seize a 51-44 advantage with 12:01 to go on a layup by Lamonte Bearden.
The Miners scored the next nine points, and took their last lead (53-51) on Harris’ jumper with 8:46 to go. The Hilltoppers once again had the answer, reeling off eight unanswered to build a 59-53 cushion on a three-pointer by Justin Johnson with 7:35 to go.
UTEP got within four (64-60) on a free throw by Evan Gilyard with 1:32 remaining, but WKU pitched a shutout the rest of the way and finished it off with dunks by Johnson and Dwight Coleby, and free throws by Bearden.
At one point, the Miners turned it over on three consecutive possessions in a five-point game (62-57) with about five minutes remaining.
“We went through about three weeks averaging seven or eight turnovers, and we got back to getting reckless,” Johnson said.
Four WKU starters scored in double figures, as Johnson led the way with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Harris scored 16 points and Paul Thomas added 10 for the Miners.
WKU shot 50 percent and scored 42 points, including 11 off turnovers, in the second half.
“I’m really disappointed,” Johnson said. “At halftime I really felt like we would go win the game. I felt like they weren’t defending hard enough and I thought we could go score. But we just kind of self-destructed. And I don’t think it’s so much what they did, it’s self-imposed mistakes.”
The Miners will be right back at it on Saturday when they host Marshall at 7 p.m.
Gallery by Andres Acosta, Chief Photographer, El Paso Herald-Post