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Men’s basketball takes down Incarnate Word 72-66

Gaby Velasquez
Interim head coach Phil Johnson exits the court as he is thrown out of the game.

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The first half of Tuesday night’s match up between the UTEP Miners and the visiting Incarnate Word Cardinals was slow-paced, low scoring and heavy on the foul calls.

The second half was two of the three of those.

The Miners (4-6) came into the game missing players because of illness, injury and bereavement and it showed in the 28-28 halftime score. UTEP shot 42.9 percent from the field with only one three-pointer and two starters not on the board statistically. Without senior point guard Omega Harris and junior forward Paul Thomas, who each contributed ten points in the half, the Miners would have been all but shutout.

In the half, Incarnate Word (5-4) led by as much as six points with senior guard Shawn Johnson leading the way with 11 points, including three made three-pointers. Miners interim head coach Phil Johnson implored his team numerous times during the half to rebound with heart and hustle, with seemingly no effect.

Four minutes into the second half with the game tied, Johnson may have found the spark he needed; whether it was intentional or not is debatable, although Johnson will argue even that point.

“No, it wasn’t pre-planned,” Johnson said with a wry smile about his ejection from the game early in the second half. “I just felt like something needed to happen and it really wasn’t a technical, but I really wanted to send a message to the team – not through a (technical) – just with some energy.”

Johnson said that with the “rust” showing, he felt like his team was better than they were playing. After seeing his team called for nine fouls in the first half, two quick ones in succession on freshman forward Tirus Smith was enough for Johnson to let one official know what he thought of him on this particular evening.

Following four technical foul shots by junior forward Simi Socks – who ended the night as the leading scorer with 21 points – the Cardinals may have wished Johnson had kept his cool after all.

“After that, we were all locked in,” said Thomas about Johnson’s ejection. “We were like, man, we’ve got to get this done.”

The Miners shook off the “rust,” now under the leadership of assistant coach Bobby Braswell and by 7:43 to go had taken the lead for good.

With six minutes to go, graduate guard Keith Frazier – UTEP’s leading scorer – who had been held scoreless all night, hit a three pointer from the top of the arc that brought the Don Haskins crowd to their feet.

“They were really trying to deny him the basketball all night and you saw it last game with Washington State and you saw it again tonight and I thought he got frustrated with it,” said Johnson about his leading scorer. “He’ll get better. He’ll learn to play through a defense’s focus on him to keep the ball out of his hand, maybe some double-teams, traps, whatever it may be.”

The win was sealed when senior guard Trey Touchet missed a three-pointer from the corner and Thomas skied for the rebound, reaching it with his right hand near the top of the square on the backboard and slamming it home. The Miners stretched the lead to 10 soon after and eventually settled in for the 72-66 victory.

“I think it helped the team, it kind of sparked us a little bit,” said the humble Thomas about his rebound dunk. “We went on a little run afterwards.”

Thomas finished the night with 16 points and eight rebounds to lead the Miners in both areas.

Harris and Smith finished with 15 points each and Smith also contributed an important six boards in the absence of center Matt Willms.

The Miners have a quick turnaround before facing Howard (2-11) in the opening game of the Sun Bowl Invitational Tournament on Thursday at 7 p.m.

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Men’s basketball takes down Incarnate Word 72-66