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Miners finish last place in Sun Bowl Invitational after loss to UC Irvine

Gaby Velasquez

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In the consolation game of the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational tournament, the UTEP men’s basketball team received last place for just the third time in school history. On Thursday, Dec. 22, the Miners squared off against UC Irvine, who were the former defending champion of the tournament, and UTEP came up short, 62-57.

The slide for UTEP basketball continues as they are on an eight game losing streak. However, head coach of the Miners Tim Floyd felt more optimistic than usual.

UTEP came in as the underdog, but they were not a pushover to the Anteaters, as the Miners gave UCI a run for their money.

In the first half of play, it was anyone’s game for the majority of the twenty minutes. UTEP led for 8:23, compared to UCI’s lead for 6:41. Floyd’s team has struggled on the defensive end of the ball previously, but in the first period against UCI, the Miners came out looking to put that stigma to a rest.

UTEP put pressure on UCI after every made basket as the Miners were in a 1-2-2 full-court press and fell back to 2-3 zone when the Anteaters got past the half court line. Either 7-foot-1 Matt Willms or 6-foot-11 freshman Kelvin Jones clogged the lane for the Miners at every defensive possession. This game plan was successful for 12 first half turnovers from the Anteaters, and 19 turnovers overall.

As the Miners forced double-digit turnovers from their opponent, they too coughed up the ball 10 times in the opening half. The main difference between the two team’s mistakes was how they each capitalized on the turnovers—UCI scored half of their points from UTEP’s mishaps with 16 points, and the Miners cashed in for 11.

The Miners’ aggressive play led to 12-18 (67 percent) from the free throw line. And the Anteaters only got to the strike seven times.

At halftime, the scoreboard was in favor of UCI, 32-30.

When the second half started, UCI’s Jaron Martin made as many 3-point buckets as his team did in the first half with four makes in the first five minutes after the break. But, UTEP never broke, despite the rough start to the ending half.

UTEP held the Anteaters to 36 percent shooting in the game, and clamped down when the game was on the line—UCI went cold with just under ten minutes in regulation as they shot 2-for-13 and could not pull away from the Miners.

“We could not guard anybody coming into this tournament, and in back-to-back games we at least gave ourselves a chance to play on the other end because we were better defensively,” Floyd said. “The zone helped us a lot tonight. We ran the zone tonight to allow us to be able to play two big men at the same time, and it really disrupted them (UCI).

The only problem was that UTEP’s offense could not muster up enough points in the Anteaters’ drought to overcome the hump.

Much of the struggle was in thanks to orange and blue’s bench that was nowhere to be seen. Throughout the ball game, they only totaled three points in the contest, compared to 22 points from the UCI sideline. Harris did not come out of the game for the Miners and Artis played 39 minutes when his night came to a close. The two guards for UTEP combined for 33 points and only one turnover. They were just lacking that third scorer that has not been there all season.

“Coach told me, before the season, that me and Dominic are going to be playing a lot, and probably not coming out in close games. Everybody else has to come prepared and be good role pieces for this team, so we could get this thing together,” Harris said.

And another nightmare ending was taking place in front of the El Paso fans, and it did not help that UTEP had another three players foul out against UCI. Willms, Jones and sophomore Paul Thomas had to be taken out of the game, which hurt Floyd’s chances at snagging a victory from behind.

“We had trouble with the whistle tonight and last night. It was absolutely absurd, since we were playing zone all game. I didn’t think getting that many fouls were possible in a zone defense, but the refs showed us differently tonight,” Floyd said. “Having Matt show up tonight, along with Paul Thomas this weekend was great for our team. We had pulses inside and we were able to play there. We played inside tonight, and it actually looked like we had a scheme tonight—hopefully there will be some carry over.”

With foul-trouble hitting Floyd’s group early in the deciding period, the home team struggled to secure rebounds. The Anteaters were relentless, out rebounding their opponent 43-24, including 12 offensive boards, which gave their offense chance after chance.

Regardless of UTEP’s team defense, they fell asleep on one player all night—Martin, who had a game high of 22 points in the matchup. On the other hand, the Miners did a great job on UCI’s big man Ioannis Dimakopoulos, the team’s second leading scorer on the year. He only threw in one point in the second half of play, after his ten-point half in the first period.

Free throws were a crucial part to UTEP’s consolation game. When every point mattered the most, the Miners only got to the line four time in the second half, but the free throws took place when the lead was up for grabs. UTEP went 1-for-4 in the closing minutes of the match, which did not help their cause. If they hit their free throws the game could have very much been in favor of UTEP.

“Free throw shooting was a pivotal point in the ball game, but for our ball club to be in a possession game against a team like this was huge for us. And it was a meaningful game,” Floyd said. “The lack of minutes from Willms and Jones was just because of foul trouble. I thought they did well tonight. It’s great to see Jones can give us minutes and give Matt a break.”

Despite the optimism he relished, Floyd has not won the tournament in two years now.

“This is a very, very difficult stretch from a basketball program we are extremely proud out. But, we are going to keep fighting the fight and guys are going to keep growing,” Floyd said.

UTEP will have a seven-day break before their next meeting with New Mexico State on Dec. 30. The Miners will begin their four-game road trip and will not play at home until Jan. 12.

“I would give anything to win at least 2-out-of-3,” Floyd said.

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Gaby Velasquez, Photo editor
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Miners finish last place in Sun Bowl Invitational after loss to UC Irvine