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UTEP puts it all together in 79-71 road win at Rice

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NCAA Basketball: Texas-El Paso at Rice Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

It all came together Saturday night in Houston for the UTEP basketball.

A team that was 2-13 overall and 0-3 in conference just a month and some weeks ago sent a defensive statement that their climb into the middle of the pack from the depths of C-USA doom should be taken seriously.

Maybe even......very seriously.

The Miners led the entire game for the first time all season, got a another double-double from Paul Thomas, and battled through foul trouble all while putting on a defensive clinic in stretches to frustrate Rice in a 79-71 win.

Thomas put up 17 points, and 10 rebounds in his hometown in front of many relatives. Dominic Artis and Omega Harris also joined him in double figures as UTEP shot 54.4 percent from the field, and went 9-for-14 from behind the 3-point arch to grab sole possession of fourth place with a 9-5 C-USA record.

A quick whistle would put Rice in the bonus just six minutes into the game which also included a technical on UTEP’s bench. But that rocky start did not phase the Miners who came out strong despite Matt Willms picking up two quick fouls just two minutes in.

A 9-0 UTEP run would get started with a dunk by Kelvin Jones, then Omega Harris capped the surge with a 3-pointer from the corner, beating the shot clock, and the Miners led 16-6 at the 12:15 mark of the first half.

Rice would go scoreless for almost three minutes during UTEP’s run, but they would answer with an 8-0 run after a pair of free throws from Marcus Evans with just under 11 minutes left in the opening half.

UTEP rushed the Owls into a 4-for-20 start from the field, while UTEP controlled the glass and tempo with lengthy, but productive offensive possessions to build a small lead.

Harris scored 10 first half points and would bank a jumper in as UTEP led 29-19 with 3:22 left until halftime, but the Miners would go scoreless for the rest of the half leading 29-24 at halftime.

UTEP left some points on the floor late in the first half due to some missed free throws and layups, but the point zone defensive scheme disrupted Rice’s offense and the 20-17 UTEP edge on the boards held the first half lead intact.

Rice was also shooting 1-for-14 from long distance in the opening half, while the Miners started 5-for-8 from deep and a 3-ball from Jake Flaggert gave UTEP a 35-25 lead just a minute into the second half.

Paul Thomas gave UTEP their biggest lead at that point, nailing a jumper at the 15:09 mark and the Miners led 43-30 while Rice struggled to find any offensive flow thanks to UTEP’s point zone.

Omega Harris hit a 3-pointer at the 12:08 mark of the second half, and at that point UTEP was 7-of-10 from three point distance, while the Owls were 2-for-19 and UTEP led 54-41.

UTEP also held a 24-6 edge in points in the paint at one point, but Rice went on a 5-for-6 stretch from the field with a 3-pointer from Ako Adams slicing the lead to single digits, but the Miners were still on top 59-51.

That spurt was done during a three minute UTEP scoring drought, but Trey Touchet stopped the drought with a 3-pointer, then Paul Thomas found a soft spot in the Rice zone and hit a jumper pushing UTEP ahead 64-53 with six minutes left in the game.

But Owls had one more run left in them.

After a pair of Matt Willms free throws made it 66-53 UTEP, Rice went on a 6-0 spurt as UTEP went scoreless for two minutes-plus. A 3-pointer from Marcus Jackson finished off the run and UTEP led 66-59 at the under four minute media timeout.

UTEP answer with five straight to make it 71-59, then after a 3-pointer from Rice’s Egor Koulechov, Jake Flaggert traded the dagger with his own 3-point bomb and UTEP led 74-62 with 2:07 to play and the Miners closed out strong for big road win.

Artis played all 40 minutes scoring 16 points, and also added six rebounds and seven assists. Omega Harris put up an efficient 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the floor, Harris also went 3-of-4 on his 3-point attempts.

Jake Flaggert knocked down all three of his 3-pointers in the second half, helping UTEP go 5-for-7 from deep in the second half.

Kelvin Jones gave UTEP some quiet, but solid minutes replacing the foul trouble Willms found. Jones scored seven points, and hauled in four rebounds in just 10 minutes.

Thomas scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half playing with three fouls for most of the half, and four fouls in the final ten minutes. Seven of his rebounds also came in the second half making a strong case for C-USA Player of the Week honors.

UTEP held both Egor Koulechov and Marcus Evans well under their season averages which was a major concern coming into the game. Rice finished the night 8-for-29 from long distance, Egor and Evans were a combined 3-for-13.

For the first time all season, and particularly during the past eleven games, everything just seemed to fall into place from the opening tip.

UTEP played strong defense mixed with a tough rebounding effort, they hit 3-pointers, controlled the tempo, and were the more physical team.

All of which led to their third straight road game with two more coming up next weekend starting Thursday at Florida Atlantic.