UTEP loses third place C-USA bye hopes in heartbreaking fashion to ODU

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UTEP loses third place C-USA bye hopes in heartbreaking fashion to ODU

Nina Titovets

Nina Titovets

Nina Titovets

Adrian Broaddus, Web Editor

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There was only one winner allowed on Thursday night’s matchup between Old Dominon and UTEP, and there would only be one who would clinch the third place bye in the Conference USA tournament.

A crucial missed free throw; a debated foul called in the final seconds; two clutch free throws; and, one controversial call on a basket that was called back.

After 40 minutes of physical, back-and-forth basketball, it was the Monarchs who pulled through in the final seconds, 62-61 over the Miners.

When ODU’s Zoran Talley hit two huge, go-ahead free throws with less than three seconds on the clock, most hope for the Miners looked gone. The Miners had one opportunity on an in-bound toss, which was deflected and gave the Miners a closer look by their bench.

With 2.5 seconds on the clock, guard Omega Harris jacked up a jumper, which happened to fall short; but, center Matt Willms was there to tip it in just as the buzzer rang.

Game over; Miners won 63-62 as the benches cleared, nearly 9,000 fans erupted in joy and a swarm of Orange jerseys paraded over Willms.

Wrong.

In the midst of the celebration, the referees huddled by the score table and ruled the basket no good. Game over; Old Dominion won 62-61, and the crowd and players from the Miners erupt in disappointment.

Old Dominion (19-10, 12-5 C-USA) clinched the third place bye in the league’s tournament with the win as they Miners (13-16, 11-6 C-USA) are in a must-win situation on Saturday for any hopes at the last spot for the first round bye.

“I thought to myself, ‘Omega is going to get this shot off because he’s a great shooter and I’ve seen him make some weird shots in practice,’ but I stuck out my hand because if that ball was coming off, it would come into my hand” said Willms explaining the final play that transpired. “When I got the ball, I could see the clock right in my hand and right as I was going up, I saw ‘.4.’ I guess they didn’t start the clock on time.”

Indeed Willms’ inquiry was correct. The ref called back the shot because the watch on his hip and the game clock did not correlate, according to head coach Tim Floyd who received an explanation from the ref.

“He (the ref) felt that looking at the clock on his and it didn’t start on time,” Floyd said. “He said he had to go through it three times and the guy marks it good.”

The madness did not simply transpire in the final seconds of the game; rather, it was an up-and-down roller coaster for both teams throughout the game.

In the first half, the Miners came out firing darts, going on a 7-2, then a 9-5 run. On the other end, the Monarchs fought right along as B.J. Stith opened up the game with eight points.

During the final four minutes of the first half, Old Dominion stormed through with a 9-2 run. For the remainder of the period, it was blow after blow between the teams, and it was ODU who slipped away with the lead at the half, 31-27.

Coincidently, the teams had very similar stats at the half—both shot over 45 percent from the floor, both shot over 40 percent from 3-point range and the rebound margin was only plus-2 in the favor of ODU.

What truly made a difference was how the Monarchs shut out Willms in the first half to only three rebounds and two points.

“I thought Matt wasn’t allowed to do his thing in the first half,” Floyd said. “It was a really physical first half that made us play the screen and roll offense during the second half.”

Old Dominion opened up the first half trading blows again with the Miners, but they branched off and orchestrated a 15-6 run leading up to the seven minute mark of the game. The Miners faced their largest deficit of the night down by 11 at the 7:17 mark as things weren’t looking good for the group.

Off the bench guard Trey Touchet thought otherwise. He alone built a 10-5 run, featuring two sets of made free throws and two 3-pointers. Even forward Jake Flaggert, who was cold the entire game from beyond the arc (0-3), made a clutch 3-pointer to make the game close, 53-51 in ODU’s favor.

Then the back-and-forth battle was in full effect. Dominic Artis and Harris traded shots offensively, and Artis’ back-to-back scoring baskets were enough to give the Miners the lead with nearly a minute left in the game.

Talley, who registered 17 points off the bench for the Monarchs, hit a nice jumper to put ODU in a must-defend situation as they trailed 61-60 with under 20 seconds left. They quickly fouled Artis, who ended up missing two close free throws.

On the final possession, Talley hit the shot that was called a foul. Then, he hit the two go-ahead free throws that would win the game.

“I saw his leg kick out on the shot,” Floyd said. “That’s what the shooter said and that’s what our bench said.”

As it was at halftime, both teams ended the game with surprisingly similar stats. While UTEP shot 44 percent from the floor, ODU hit 47 percent. Both teams shot nearly 75 percent from the charity stripe. Both teams shot over 36 percent from 3-point range, both had over 28 boards, the two teams had eight or more turnovers, both had seven points off turnovers and both had 22 points in the paint.

The only major difference was Old Dominion dominated off the bench, outscoring UTEP’s 32-16.

Despite the controversial finish, both Touchet and Willms believe that the Miners were not robbed of the game.

“We lost it,” Touchet said. “We did have mistakes but now we will focus on Charlotte. We’re a little down but we still have a chance.”

Floyd would also agree with Touchet’s optimism and even referred to the LA Tech game earlier in the season. The Miners lost the game by the same score as Thursday, 62-61, to the Bulldogs, but afterwards, the team went on a five-game win streak.

“Last time we lost a game like this was LA Tech and we came back and won big after that,” Floyd said. “It’s now onto the next one.”

The Miners will take on Charlotte on Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m. in the Don Haskins Center.

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