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WKU slips past UTEP 65-62

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NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament-Old Dominion vs Western Kentucky Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

WKU guard Pancake Thomas helped the Hilltoppers pounce all over UTEP early on, and it looked like it was going to be a long night in the Bluegrass State for the Miners.

UTEP fell into a deep 26-5 hole early on in the first half, but were able fight back the rest of the way, and actually had a shot to tie it at the final buzzer. Although Jake Flaggert’s 30-footer came up way short as time ran out, snapping UTEP’s modest win streak.

Matt Willms was special scoring 27 points, going 13-for-16 from the floor. Despite Willms superb effort, particularly down the stretch, UTEP falls to under .500 in C-USA play.

UTEP struggled to get good looks on their first six offensive possession of the game, while Pancake Thomas ripped apart the 1-3-1 zone UTEP opened up in with an avalanche of early 3-pointers.

Thomas went on a personal 9-0 run, and made his first four 3-pointers of the game helping WKU race out to a quick 14-3 lead just four and a half minutes into the game.

WKU’s run would grow to 14-0 as UTEP started 2-for-7 from the floor, and trailed 19-3 at the 14:16 mark of the first half. The Miners took care of the ball, but WKU’s energy hurried a few tough looks leading to misses.

UTEP was able to weather the storm a bit midway through the first half. They strung together four makes in a row during a stretch, cutting the lead down to 30-19 after Omega Harris grabbed his own miss and put it back home with just under eight minutes to play until halftime.

The Miners continued their strong stretch after the horrid start, then trimming the lead down to 35-25 after a bucket in the paint from Dominic Artis.

Although WKU shot 48.1 percent from the field in the first half, and Justin Johnson hit a 3-pointer before the halftime buzzer giving the Tops a 46-29 halftime lead.

The Tops made six first half 3-pointers, and attempted 19 free throws putting Harris and Paul Thomas in foul trouble with three first half fouls each.

UTEP came out of the break strong shooting 6-for-7 from the floor and outscored WKU 13-6 along with a 7-0 run cutting the lead down again to 52-42 with 15:51 left in the game.

WKU saw their offensive consistency come to a halt, going scoreless for six of the next eight minutes. UTEP went scoreless for more than two minutes during the same span, and were unable to get closer than nine points.

Harris finally broke that trend, coming down the baseline with a one-hand slam at the 8:16 mark of the final half, cutting it to 59-52 as WKU missed six straight in a row from the floor.

UTEP was down 28-8 in the first 10 minutes of the game, but had outscored WKU 48-33 over the next 25 minutes after falling way behind.

Matt Willms scored back-to-back buckets capping the turnaround, and got UTEP closer but still trailing 61-56 at the under four minute timeout of the second half.

Willms would make it four in a row with a layup, then a fast break dunk with 1:16 left and UTEP trailing 63-60.

Pancake Thomas would go to the free throw line with WKU leading 65-60, but he would miss the front end of a one-and-one with 33 seconds left, allowing Dominic Artis to make it a one possession game on the next trip with a tough layup making it 65-63 WKU.

Again Thomas would miss a front end, this time with seven seconds left, which gave UTEP one last chance for overtime.

With 3.5 seconds left, Harris in-bounded to Jake Flaggert, but Flaggert was denied a drawn up pass designed to go back to Harris on the in bounds play, and had to settle for a 30-foot jumper which fell way short.

Thomas finished with 25 points and eight rebounds for WKU. He made seven of WKU’s nine 3-pointers on the evening. Justin Johnson added 15 points, and 12 rebounds.

WKU ended the night shooting just 38.4 percent from the field, scoring just 19 second half points, and shot 25 percent in the final half.

UTEP pounded the paint outscoring WKU 40-6 in points in the paint, while WKU settled for 27, 3-point attempts on the evening. WKU went to the free throw line 23 times compared to just nine free throw attempts for UTEP in the game.

The Miners shot 46.7 percent from the field, and 51.6 percent in the second half.

UTEP struggled from the long distance, but shooting 3-pointers has not been friendly for the Miners in their last two games inside E.A. Diddle arena.

UTEP went 2-for-15 from 3-point land on the night, and has shot 2-for-32 in the two C-USA games played against WKU on the Tops home floor. The Miners also only made four free throws and scored 20 fast break points compared to just three for the Tops.

Omega Harris scored 15 points, and added five rebounds. Artis once again flirted with a triple-double chipping in 14 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists with only one turnover in 37 minutes.

Next up for UTEP is Marshall on Saturday with a 5 p.m. tipoff from Huntington, West Viriginia.