Matt Willms scored on a tip-in of Evan Gilyard’s miss with 25 seconds left, sending UTEP to a 74-72 victory over LA Tech on Thursday in the Haskins Center.
The Miners (9-18, 4-11 C-USA) picked up a much-needed victory after Rice won at Florida Atlantic, 79-76 in overtime, earlier in the night. The win over the Bulldogs (16-13, 7-9 C-USA) kept UTEP a full game ahead of the Owls in the chase for the no. 12 seed in the Conference USA Championship with three games remaining in the regular season.
UTEP will close out its home schedule on Saturday against Southern Miss on “Senior Night” at 7 p.m. before hitting the road for matchups at Rice (March 1) and North Texas (March 3) next week.
On Thursday, the Miners outscored the Bulldogs 10-3 over the final 3:06 to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
“We finally got a second half performance for the first time in a while and I’m really proud of that,” said UTEP Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson. “I was really worried about it at halftime with a two-point lead [41-39]. It has been our downfall, the second halves and not being able to defend and stop the other team. And tonight, they shot 36 percent in the second half. Not since Washington State earlier in the semester have we really defended that way in the second half. I give our guys a lot of credit coming off the Old Dominion loss [last Saturday].”
Omega Harris scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half, and Willms had arguably his best game of the season with 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in 30 minutes. The seniors stepped up big at the start of Senior Weekend. On Saturday Harris, Willms, Jake Flaggert and Keith Frazier will suit up for the Miners in a home game for the last time.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” Johnson said. “It’s something that they’ll remember for a long time, particularly our seniors, that on our last weekend at UTEP we went and beat Louisiana Tech, a team that had beaten us earlier in the season, and played really hard. Obviously a lot of parents are here for Saturday night. I’m real proud of our fans that have hung in there with us and came out tonight. They made a difference and I’m really, really proud of Miner Nation tonight.”
Neither team led by more than seven points on Thursday, and the game featured eight ties and 10 lead changes. LA Tech took control with a 7-0 run that turned a 64-62 deficit into a 69-64 lead with 3:31 to go. But the Miners held the Bulldogs to one field goal the rest of the night.
After Paul Thomas made two big free throws with 1:34 remaining to pull UTEP within two (72-70), Gilyard picked up a charge on the Bulldogs’ Amorie Archibald, then drove for the game-tying bucket with 1:07 to go. LA Tech’s Derric Jean missed a three-pointer with 45 seconds left, leading to Willms’ game-winner.
Isiah Osborne scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half, and Trey Wade added 10 points off the bench. Anthony Duruji led LA Tech with 15 points.
The Miners shot 52.7 percent (60.7 percent in the first half) and made 10-of-13 free throws in a game that they needed to have.
“They’re all important this time of the year, for everybody,” Johnson said. “We’re obviously trying to get into the tournament, and maybe we can win out and climb the ladder.”