Men’s basketball finishes last in Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Jason Green, Contributor

In their final game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in Myrtle Beach, the Miners were playing to salvage one win from the three games in the tournament. The Appalachian State Mountaineers, who had also lost two games, had other ideas.

The hot shooting Mountaineers defeated the Miners 76-72 with a big first half, and despite a major UTEP comeback led by graduate transfer Keith Frazier’s 25 points, it was missed free throws down the stretch that doomed the Miners.

“They played really well. They shot the ball exceedingly well in the first half, making eight threes. We didn’t close to them very well,” said UTEP head coach Tim Floyd following the team’s third loss in four days. “We did a much better job in the second half of guarding the three-point line. We did a much better job defensively in the second half.”

The Miners trailed 42-28 at the half after an attempt to change things up defensively led to a failure at the offensive end. With Frazier having told Floyd that he would not be able to play – he would quickly change his mind upon arrival to the arena – and senior guard Omega Harris possibly unable to play due to a lingering back issue, the defense needed shaking up.

“Coming into this, we weren’t sure if (Harris) was going to be able to play. We weren’t sure if Frazier was going to be able to play,” Floyd said. “We thought that we might be able to buy some minutes out of that group just by going with a box and/or a triangle for a couple of minutes, because it was a veteran group that kind of understands that. The other guys do not. But, again, we didn’t get started off right offensively.”

For the first time this season, Floyd changed the starting line-up and went with junior forward Paul Thomas, senior forward Jake Flaggert, senior center Matt Willms, junior guard Trey Touchet and Harris.

Senior guard Ronshad Shabazz, who is three points from becoming the Mountaineers’ all-time leading scorer, was held to zero points in the first half. Unfortunately for UTEP, Appalachian State shot 45.2 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three.

In the second half, as with most UTEP comebacks, tighter defense led to a closer game. After only three and a half minutes, suffocating defense from the Miners – which caused eleven turnovers in the half – led to a Frazier three and gave the Miners the lead at 42-41.

The Miners extended the lead to eight with about ten minutes to go when freshman guard Isiah Osborne, who was leading the charge with steals of inbounds passes and feeds to Willms and Frazier for scores, twisted his ankle and was pulled from the floor.

“We were rocking along there pretty good and Isiah turned his ankle,” Floyd said shaking his head. “So, we had to take him out at the ten-minute mark and Matt (Willms) needed a blow and we had to come in with a freshman and it wasn’t quite the same there for a three or four-minute stretch.”

Freshman point guard Evan Gilyard turned the ball over three times, the most important being in the waning minutes when he used his free hand to push the defender off and was called.
As with the Boise State game to open the tournament, the Miners found themselves with a chance to win the game from the line again late and once again could not face the pressure.

Frazier – who missed the game sealing free throw against Boise State – missed a free throw with seconds left that would have tied the game at 73.

Osborne would miss the front end of a one and one at the very end of the game to seal the Miners’ fate.

“Isiah’s growing as a player,” Floyd said after the game, flanked by Osborne and Harris. “We’re a couple of free throws missed from having a chance to be three and zero in this thing. We didn’t get that accomplished late by stepping up to the line and just making one.”

The Miners are heading back to El Paso after a tough trip, with what looks to be an even tougher few weeks of basketball ahead starting with a road showdown on Saturday, Nov. 25, at rival New Mexico State, who have beaten the Miners in five-straight meetings.