Miners Clinch a first round bye by overcoming Charlotte

The UTEP men’s basketball team faced a must win situation playing for a first round bye in the upcoming Conference USA tournament when Charlotte came to the Don Haskins Center on Mar. 4. The Miners responded with a 74-67 victory on “senior day” and their last regular season game of the year.

UTEP (14-16, 12-6 C-USA) has officially clinched the fourth seed and a first round bye in the league playoffs despite their rocky start to the season. In the last 15 games of the season, the Miners turned around their dreadful season by winning 12 of those contests, including their most recent victory over the usual high-flying offense of the 49ers (13-16, 7-11 C-USA).

The lone senior on the roster of UTEP, Dominic Artis participated in his last home game ever on Saturday, and he did not light up the scoring sheet like he had done all season. Instead, Artis found different ways to stride his team past Charlotte, like a leader would do. He totaled 10 points, eight assists, six rebounds and only one turnover even though the ball is in his hands the majority of the game.

“I thought D.A. (Artis) got us going in the second half by finding guys and getting them open shots. He was selfless on Senior Day and did helped us get this win. He’s had a great career,” head coach of UTEP Tim Floyd said. “He (Artis) has made great strides since coming from Oregon. He could have played for himself when our team was struggling, but, instead, he has played for the team down this stretch. Artis lives in the gym, more than anyone I’ve ever coached. He beats himself up over mistakes and turnovers. And it’s incredible to see the changes he has made in his life. He has prioritized and knows what is good for him.”

The most impressive part about his performance against the 49ers was his defensive mindset. Charlotte has been led by their guard Jon Davis all season, who averages 19.9 points per game. Against Artis, Davis only recorded seven points off of 2-of-12 shooting (17 percent) and was not a factor all contest.

Artis was accompanied by his fellow backcourt partner Omega Harris, who stole the show in the second half of play. Harris had a career day with a career-high total of points 27 and a career-best in rebounds too with 10. His double-double was crucial for the Miners to put away the stingy 49ers.

Harris scored 22 of his 27 total points in the closing period.

Sophomore forward Paul Thomas has raised some eyebrows with his play in the Miners’ hot streak. And in the last game of the season, Thomas posted UTEP’s second double-double on the day, with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

The recent play of UTEP’s big men have aided the Miners to receiving a first round bye in the league tournament, according to Floyd. In the painted area, the home team outscored the 49ers 32-22 and the Miners were clogging up the paint with five crowd pleasing blocks, compared to only one from Charlotte.

“We got the inside game established. I thought it would open up our shooting from outside, but it didn’t. We didn’t shoot well from the three (5-21) all night,” Floyd said. “Earlier in the year, we couldn’t get it down low, now we can. We have rallied around our big guys’ improvements. Thomas and Matt (Willms) have stepped up big for us.”

UTEP led for all but 30 seconds in their matchup with Charlotte, which comes out to 39:30 seconds with the lead in their favor.

Floyd’s unit held a team in the 49ers, who came in averaging 77 points per game (fourth in C-USA) to only 37.9 percent shooting, and they weren’t much better from the free throw line with missing 10 out their 25 charity strike attempts (15-25, 60 percent). With their starters usually being relied on, it was Charlotte’s bench that kept them in the game with 31 points coming from the reserves, compared to only eight from UTEP’s sideline.

When the game got close, the Miners led only by three points, 63-60 with under four minutes to play. It was turnovers that killed any chance of completing the comeback for the visiting 49ers. The Miners quickly forced three turnovers when the contest got close and went up 69-60 with under two to go.

In total, Charlotte coughed up the rock 10 times and the Miners cashed in for 11 points from the turnovers and eight from the fast break.

Now, UTEP will get to rest for the first round of the tournament and await whomever is scheduled to play the hot Miners. The other teams receiving byes are Middle Tennessee, LA Tech and Old Dominion. The tournament is from Mar. 8 to Mar. 11, in Birmingham, Alabama.

“We’ve seen every team in our conference and know how they play. It’s a great league and there is no predicting what will happen. I also want to thank our fans for being the best in the nation and sticking with us even though we stunk it up to begin the season. They deserve us to play spirited every night and come in ready to work,” Floyd said. “The most important thing is how a team plays going into the tournament. I asked our guys if there is any team they think they can’t beat and they responded, ‘Absolutely not.’ We’re very eager to continue playing.”