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Tip-in lifts UTEP over La. Tech for key win

Gaby Velasquez
Evan Gilyard celebrates at the buzzer following a 74-72 win against La. Tech.

Matt Willms only had two points in the second half, but it turned out to be the biggest shot in the game.

After Even Gilyard drove to the bucket and missed the go-ahead shot, it seemed as if UTEP was going to need to get a stop on the defensive end to even force overtime.

Until Willms’s tip-in layup with under 30 seconds turned out to be the game-winning basket for the Miners, putting them on top and eventually winning it for them, 74-72 over Louisiana Tech tonight at the Don Haskins Center.

“I saw Evan (Gilyard) going to the basket. He makes a lot of those left-handed layups. But the way he was going over the three defenders, I was like ‘if he makes this – awesome’, but just the way the ball was coming my way. I knew it was coming my way, so I just went up there and tipped it in,” Willms said. “It felt amazing. It was a big win we needed to help get into the tournament.”

Despite the second worst marginal loss in UTEP’s history last game against Old Dominion (82-33), the Miners fought back to improve to 9-18 (4-11 Conference USA). On the other hand, LA Tech fell to 16-13 (7-9 C-USA).

“I told the team, ‘let’s throw that game in the garbage can’, and that’s what we did,” said interim head coach Phil Johnson.

In the first half of the game, the Miners jumped out to a 41-39 lead, but just like so many times this season, it looked as if UTEP was headed for another second half letdown. As UTEP was leading the game 64-62 with around 7:30 remaining, the Miners failed to score in the next three minutes of the contest. And the Bulldogs took advantage.

LA Tech rode a 7-0 run to take the lead 69-64 with just a little over three minutes to go. Coming into the game, UTEP was 1-15 when they were behind in the final five minutes.

But due to some timely defense, a couple of Isiah Osborne jumpers and an Evan Gilyard layup to knot the game up at 72 – it set up the perfect finish for UTEP.

The Miners second half mishaps were cleaned up against LA Tech. UTEP came in allowing 42.6 second half points, but only gave up 33 second half points tonight.

“We finally got a good second half performance. It was the first time in a while,” Johnson said. “I was really worried about it at halftime with a two-point lead. Second halves have been our downfall.”

UTEP forced the Bulldogs to 36 percent shooting in the second half and improved against the 3-point shot. LA Tech only made three 3-pointers in the final half, compared to seven in the opening half.

“We have up 97 the first time against LA Tech, tonight we gave up 72. So, we improved defensively. We don’t have a chance to win if we don’t defend well, and we did tonight,” Johnson said.

On the offensive end, UTEP had a number of scoring options to lean on. Omega Harris had a game-high 21 points for his third 20-point game this season, and 14th in his career. Along with some clutch makes, Osborne added in 15 points of his own, and both Trey Wade and Willms chipped in with 10 points apiece.

UTEP shot a sizzling 53 percent (29-55) as a team.

The play of Willms and Wade down low helped the Miners push past the Bulldogs. UTEP outscored LA Tech 32-24 in the paint.

UTEP is still holding on to the final C-USA playoff spot in the C-USA tournament, the 12th seed. But now with the win tonight, the Miners are only one game behind Florida Atlantic and two games back of Southern Mississippi and Florida International.

Next, UTEP will host Southern Miss on Saturday at 7 p.m. for the final home game of the 2017-18 season. With a win, it is possible the Miners could move up three spots in the C-USA standings.

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Gaby Velasquez, Photo editor
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Tip-in lifts UTEP over La. Tech for key win