UTEP’s defense was marginally improved, the offense looked a little more in sync at times, but the result was the same as UC Irvine controlled the lead down the stretch giving them a 62-57 win.
The loss gives UTEP their eight straight loss, UTEP also drops to 1-6 at home on the season, and 2-9 overall.
The first half was a close affair, with the lead changing hands seven times, and the score was also tied seven times.
UTEP opened up in a new look “point-zone” defense implemented by assistant coach Bobby Braswell which forced some turnovers, tough shots for UCI, and helped UTEP grab an early lead.
Omega Harris would come up with a steal and easy fast break dunk as UTEP held an 15-11 lead at the 11:46 mark of the first half after Harris’ dunk.
The Miner lead with hold at 18-13, but then UTEP went field goal-less for an almost five minute stretch, and a 8-0 UCI run gave them a 21-18 lead after a 3-pointer from Ioannis Dimakopoulos at the 7:23 mark of the first half.
UTEP’s defense flustered the Anteaters into a 39.3 percent shooting percentage in the opening half, while UTEP attempted 18 free throws in the first half, making 12 of those freebies.
The 3-ball was not a focus for UTEP in the first half. The Miners only attempted a pair of long balls, and scored 12 points in the paint while shooting 42.9 percent in the first half.
UC Irvine led 32-30 at halftime, the two point difference was a jumper with six seconds left in the half from Eyassu Worku ending an evenly played first half.
UTEP’s main key was slow down UCI guard Jaron Martin, but the talented guard going in the second half with a barrage of 3-pointers, and finished with a game high 22 points.
Martin would hit four 3-pointers in a two minute stretch, opening up a 44-38 lead during a 12-4 spurt in the first five and a half minutes of the second half.
Both teams would then go on a scoring drought, but Dominic Artis came up with a block, rebound, and nice open floor layup as the Anteaters missed nine in a row from the field, but led 49-46 as time ticked down to under six minutes left in the game.
The drought would extend for UCI, as Deon Barrett tied the game at 49 with a 3-pointer from the left corner off an assist from Harris with 4:38 left to play.
UCI’s scoreless drought lasted 4:11, during UTEP’s 7-0 run to tie things up, but Martin dropped in a key 3-pointer dagger, and the Miners just couldn’t shake those nasty losing demons in the closing moments.
Martin hit a pair of free throws, then ended UCI’s field goal drought with a dagger 3-pointer, breaking the tie, and stretching their lead to 54-49 with 3:44 left.
UTEP had their chances in the closing minutes, Harris slashed in a for layup which cut the lead to 56-54 with 57 seconds left. Then Jake Flaggert cut a 60-54 lead to just a three point deficit with a 3-pointer with seven seconds left, but Evan Leonard sealed with a pair of free throws after UTEP fouled on the ensuing possession.
Omega Harris scored 19 points, but went 6-for-11 from the free throw line. Dominic Artis added 14 points, five rebounds, and four assists.
Foul trouble again plagued UTEP down the stretch as Paul Thomas, Matt Willms, and Kelvin Jones all fouled out late in the second half, and UTEP could not get over the hump once again in a game they had chances to flip the script.
UC Irvine also controlled the boards with a 43-24 edge, and despite shooting just 36 percent from the field they went 17-for-21 from the charity stripe.
UTEP shot 42.6 percent for the evening, and actually out scored UCI 20-12 in points in the paint, and forced a total of 19 turnovers. But an 8-3 UCI edge in points in the paint ended up being a difference in the stat sheet.
The Miners will have a few days off for the Christmas holiday, and return to action next Friday at NMSU.