Johnson gets first win as interim UTEP head coach over Weir-led Lobos
EL PASO, TEXAS – Omega Harris scored a career-high 28 points and missed two shots all night, as UTEP ended a six-game losing streak with an 88-76 victory over long-time rival New Mexico on Saturday in the Haskins Center.
The Miners (2-6), coming off a 1-6 November, got the month off to a great start. UTEP will be home for all seven games in December, including the first two Conference USA contests versus North Texas (Dec. 28) and Rice (Dec. 30).
“We just got a great effort really from everybody,” Interim Head Coach Phil Johnson said. “We had a really intense practice yesterday and today. We had to clean up a lot of things from the New Mexico State game [Thursday], and shot selection and not guarding and not getting back and all those things. I give our guys a ton of credit for adjusting and putting into the game the things that we worked on yesterday and today in film. All of the things that we did, it got into the game. And a lot of times it doesn’t.”
The Miners only trailed once at 2-0. A 13-2 run extended a 16-15 lead to 29-17. Kobe Magee, who had the best game of his young UTEP career with 16 points off the bench, scored seven points during the run.
UTEP matched its largest lead of the half when it went to the locker room up 45-31. The Miners had some problems with the Lobos’ defensive pressure to start the second half and the lead was trimmed to 45-38. New Mexico (3-5) pulled within five at 61-56 on two free throws by Chris McNeal with 10:15 remaining, capping an 11-2 run. But the Miners scored the next five points to push the lead back to 10 and were in command the rest of the way.
“Give them credit. Their intensity picked up in the second half big-time,” Johnson said. “That’s why we had a little more trouble with the press, just because their athleticism and effort picked up. But at the end of the day Kobe Magee, man what a floor game he had. And I told Omega in the locker room, ‘Welcome back. Welcome back Omega.’ That’s the guy that we recruited four years ago.”
Harris made 9-of-11 shots, all four of his three-point attempts and all six of his free throws. He moved into 25th place on UTEP’s all-time scoring list and, for the first time this season, looked like himself after dealing with a troublesome back in the early going.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it honestly. I had zero to do with it,” Johnson said. “He just played. You know, I kind of got on him the other day. I said ‘You know, this isn’t you man. This isn’t Omega Harris that we’re watching play.’ He has been in a funk and then he broke out tonight. And his shots were in balance. He kicks his foot out, he gets a lot of shots off balance. Tonight everything was in balance except for his turnover in front of our bench with about 1:50 [left] and up by 12. That’s not a good play. But other than that, I thought he did a really nice job. And one turnover in 34 minutes out of Omega is big-time.”
Magee gave the Miners a big-time spark, particularly in the first half when he scored 11 points.
“Listen, he’s a good player,” Johnson said. “His floor game was really good. It got a little shakier in the second half with three turnovers, but the first half was really flawless. It was a real fine line to stay aggressive against the press. You’ve got to go attack the score. And then when you don’t have the right look to bring it out and have the poise to know what is the difference, what’s a good shot and not a good shot. And in the New Mexico State game, we didn’t. We just cranked it from anywhere, anytime, one pass. That was really the downfall for us the other night, was turnovers and bad shots and tonight that got better in both areas.”
The Miners shot 53.7 percent from the field, made nine threes and connected on 21-of-27 free throws. And they didn’t let New Mexico go berserk from three-point range. The Lobos finished 11-for-31 from beyond the arc.
“Right from the very start, we wanted to make sure we got to them on the three-point line,” Johnson said. “You have to help to the drive. Obviously [Sam] Logwood is a load. He is one stout guy. And he can really drive and he’s physical. So we brought really only one helper to him and tried to stay to their shooters. That wasn’t perfect either. But the key was getting out to them and running them off the three-point line ,and we did a pretty solid job of that.”
Keith Frazier (16 points), Isiah Osborne (10) and Paul Thomas (10) joined Harris and Magee in double figures. The small Miners were competitive on the boards, getting outrebounded 37-33.
“You know, it’s really amazing that we started four guards and really played four guards the entire game, four perimeter players, and then Paul Thomas or Tirus Smith at the five,” Johnson said. “And we even put Jake [Flaggert] at the five for about eight minutes. So we had five guards in the game. It was just effort, really, and gang rebounding, rebound down from the top, don’t stand and watch, go get it no matter what and team rebound. Just looking at Keith Frazier with seven [rebounds] and Isiah Osborne with eight, is big-time. Those are two perimeter guys going out and getting 15 rebounds. That’s awesome.”
Logwood led New Mexico with 22 points. McNeal, averaging a team-leading 16.6 points per game coming in, was limited to nine points and only one field goal.
The Miners will return to action on Saturday, Dec. 9 against Washington State in the Haskins Center. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. MT and tickets are available by calling (915) 747-5234.