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UTEP suffocates Rice 86-76 to move onto C-USA Tourney Semifinals

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Blake Roberts
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Defense travels, defense wins championships, and defense helped UTEP wipe the floor with Rice in a 86-76 quarterfinal win Thursday afternoon in the C-USA Tournament.

UTEP had four players foul out, and Matt Willms only played 15 minutes, but it never became a major issue as UTEP’s defense was key in stifling Rice’s high-powered offense in a game UTEP controlled with a double digit lead for most of the game.

The Miners have now won eight straight against Rice, and set up a rematch with league leading Middle Tennessee in the semifinal round tomorrow.

UTEP smothered Rice on the defensive end early and often, and used some great ball movement to jump out to an early lead that continued to grow until the halftime break.

Dominic Artis started 5-for-5 from the field scoring eight of UTEP’s first 14 points as UTEP jumped out an early 14-4 lead after Artis hit his second 3-pointer just four minutes into the contest.

Artis scored 20 points in the first half, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, and also added six rebounds and four assists in the first half.

After UTEP’s hot start, Rice settled in for a stretch and cut the lead to 29-23 after a pair of free throws from Egor Koulechov with 6:25 left until halftime.

But Artis, and the Miners’ “in your shorts” defense was just too much for Rice.

UTEP finished the final six minutes of the first half on a 20-5 run, and led 49-29 at halftime. UTEP led by as much as 22-points and the Miners shot 61.3 percent from the floor in the first half, while Rice shot an ice cold 26.7 percent.

Rice could never get in a rhythm and shot 4-for-15 from 3-point distance, while UTEP went 6-for-10 from downtown in the first half.

The Miners first 11 possessions of the second half were shaky with UTEP starting 2-for-6 from the field to go along with 5 turnovers, but UTEP kept defending to keep their lead fully intact and never in question.

Harris penetrated Rice’s defense for nice mid-range jumper at the 9:53 mark as UTEP led 63-45, but foul trouble slowed the pace, and fouled out both Kelvin Jones and Matt Willms with 6:30 to play.

Marcus Evans hit a pair of free throws cutting the lead to 66-57 with 5:52 left in the ball game, and the Owls were threatening.

Artis hadn’t scored at all in the second half, until he converted a 3-point play on the ensuing possession to stretch out UTEP’s lead to 70-57.

Evans then hit a 3-pointer from the corner, making things interesting as Rice trimmed the lead 73-62 UTEP with 4:08 left in the game.

Despite Rice’s small push, UTEP’s defense was too much, and the Miners poise once against sealed up a win. The second half was a free throw shooting contest in which UTEP won going 18-for-23 from the line in the second half.

Artis ended the night with 26 points on 10-for-13 shooting, and collected 10 rebounds, and six assists in 37 minutes. The senior played with a clear, ‘I’m not going home early’ chip that helped UTEP enjoy a comfortable lead for most of the afternoon.

Omega Harris scored 21 points, going 7-for-9 at the free throw line and he also added six rebounds. UTEP collectively dominated the glass with a 41-33 edge, and eight offensive rebounds led to 13 second chance points for UTEP.

Trey Touchet and Matt Willms each scored 10 points, Touchet hit a pair of 3-pointers, and Willms also added six rebounds before fouling out.

UTEP shot 56 percent from the field in the ball game, and 23-for-33 from the free throw line. Rice went to the line 36 times, and made 24 of their freebies.

The Owls shot 33.9 percent from the field in the end, and 10-for-28 from behind the 3-point arch, but did force 17 UTEP turnovers.

Despite the turnovers, and foul trouble, UTEP’s defense was pretty much perfect in stretches, and suffocated Rice, wearing them down in the end.

UTEP will now turn their attention to nationally ranked, and top seeded Middle Tennessee who easily disposed UTSA in the first quarterfinal on Thursday.

Tomorrow’s semifinal starts at 10:30 a.m. Mountain Time and will televised on the CBS Sports Network.