Smith leads Miners to victory in first round of Sun Bowl Invitational

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Smith leads Miners to victory in first round of Sun Bowl Invitational

Tirus Smith utilizes his footwork to get away from a Howard defender for two points.

Tirus Smith utilizes his footwork to get away from a Howard defender for two points.

Gaby Velasquez

Tirus Smith utilizes his footwork to get away from a Howard defender for two points.

Gaby Velasquez

Gaby Velasquez

Tirus Smith utilizes his footwork to get away from a Howard defender for two points.

Jason Green, Contributor

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The depleted Miners continued to roll on Thursday night in front of 6,013 Don Haskins Center fans, taking out the visiting Howard University Bison in the first round of the Weststar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational by a final score of 69-56.

Since Phil Johnson lost his first game as interim head coach – an 80-60 loss to rival New Mexico State – following the abrupt retirement of Tim Floyd, the Miners have rattled off four straight victories.

Senior center Matt Willms has only played in one of the four games due to a wrist injury sustained early in the season in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and UTEP has needed players to step in under the basket; as of late, that player has been freshman forward Tirus Smith.

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Against visiting Incarnate Word on Tuesday, Smith posted a career-high 15 points and tied a career-high with six rebounds. As Willms missed his sixth game of the season on Thursday against an undersized Howard squad, Smith topped his career highs yet again with 17 points and eight rebounds.

Following the game, Johnson spoke glowingly of Smith and the fight he showed throughout the game.

“We just – every time-out, ‘Keep giving us what you’ve got, I know you’re about to drop,’ and he does,” said Johnson with a chuckle. “And he’s the best listener on our team. You give him any little detail, he tries to do it to the best of his ability. I mean, 17 (points) and eight (rebounds) in 23 minutes for a freshman. That’s pretty good.”

Smith was near the top of the stat sheet in almost every area and definitely on Johnson’s mind, but not the first thing that the coach wanted to mention in his post-game meeting.

“The story of the game right off the bat would be two things that jump out to me – I think we had a season-high 12 assists (22 was the season high against Louisiana College, 12 is the fourth highest – second highest of the Johnson Era) and that’s not an unbelievable amount. I’d rather have 20 and get up there, but that’s – the other night we had five (against UIW), so I’m real pleased with that,” said Johnson upon sitting down in front of the gathered press. “And then six turnovers after eighteen the other night (against UIW). So, what an improvement.”

Six turnovers tied a season-best set by the Miners against Washington State only three games ago. Only twice this season have the Miners finished in single digits in turnovers (six both times) and both games were under the leadership of Johnson.

Tirus Smith was not the only Miner to get it going against the Bison on Thursday.

After saying that graduate guard Keith Frazier would need to find a way to score despite the double teams and defensive focus that he has been seeing as UTEP’s leading scorer, Johnson had to be pleased with his scoring leader’s 23 points. Frazier also added eight rebounds in his 34 minutes of playing time.

“We ran a couple of little back-door plays for him and some brush screens for him, but I thought for the first time he played through that denial – played through the frustrations of really being guarded hard,” said Johnson.

Senior guard Omega Harris was a spark plug most of the night on offense also with 17 points, often from spectacular drives to the basket through a stingy HU defense.

Coming into Thursday’s game, Howard’s freshman guard R.J. Cole was averaging 20.4 points per game. Although he led the Bison with 17 points in Thursday’s opening round, the points were scored on 5-of-19 shooting and he turned the ball over three times. Cole was blanketed by freshman guards Evan Gilyard and Kobe Magee all night and his frustration was clear.

The 56 points that Howard scored against the Miners is their third lowest score of the season so far and their 31 percent shooting is far below their average of 39 percent so far in 2017.

The Miners will now prepare for North Dakota State who absolutely dominated UNC-Wilmington in the opening game on Thursday to the tune of a 100-63 final score.

Tip-off for the championship of the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational is slated for 7 p.m. at the Don Haskins Center.