Flames have no answers for UTEP’s defense, fall 67-51

It’s not easy to gain a road win in college basketball — the UTEP Miners know that all too well. The team from El Paso finally gained its first conference road victory of the season last Thursday at Jacksonville State, easing some frustration for the team that sits at No. 7 in Conference USA. That first road success soon turned into two as the Miners plowed into Liberty Arena, frustrating the Flames on their home court and stealing a 67-51 victory. 

“They were really good. (UTEP is) a team that is terrific defensively,” Flames Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “Obviously, when they lead the country in forced turnovers and we double our turnovers tonight, which led to 23 points off our turnovers, that’s really hard to survive. So, hats off to them for being able to execute their game plan.”

Otis Frazier III, who notched a team-high 24 points in his group’s victory over Jacksonville just days prior, enforced his team’s dominance in the paint early on. Frazier and his Miners jumped out to a rapid 7-2 lead in the game’s opening minutes — an advantage they would steadily build upon as the first half went on. 

The Miners’ excellence by the rim was evident, tallying 38 points in the paint on the night opposed to Liberty’s 22. UTEP’s aggression by the post frustrated the Flames, who struggled to find any breathing room under the basket. 

“It’s just a matter of trying to find open guys when we get in the paint because they really get sucked in when we get in there,” Liberty redshirt junior guard Kaden Metheny said. “And it’s just tough when they pack it in.”

Photo by Noah Seidlitz | Zach Cleveland

UTEP turned its early lead into a 15-3 run midway through the first half, with Liberty giving up five turnovers in the span of six minutes. Redshirt senior forward Kyle Rode managed to snap UTEP’s momentum, sinking a much-needed three with four minutes remaining in the half, but the damage had been done. 

Liberty went into the locker room down 12 at the half and in search of yet another double-digit second half resurgence. The Flames had attempted to mount double-digit comebacks against both Sam Houston and FIU on the road earlier this season, getting close but failing to come away with either. 

“When you get down like that, the second half is a tough battle to come back,” Metheny said. “But we knew we were capable. We never lost belief. But it was a little too late.”

UTEP’s offense continued to produce in the second, extending the Miners’ lead to 43-27 with just over 15 minutes remaining. Liberty then called a time-out and came out of the huddle with the most life it had shown to that point. Rode dropped a 3-pointer, followed by an enforcing block from junior guard Joseph Venzant to put the ball back in Liberty’s hands. 

Photo by Noah Seidlitz | Joseph Venzant

Junior guard Brody Peebles then fought in the paint for a layup that redshirt senior forward Shiloh Robinson followed up with a steal. Metheny turned Robinson’s steal into points, draining a three to send a jolt of electricity through the arena. It was now an 8-point 43-35 contest, and the chance of the Flames catching up to UTEP seemed within reach. 

Those hopes, however, were crushed by Miners guard Corey Camper Jr., who rapidly put up 9 points in five minutes to regain his team’s margin. 

Frazier III and Tae Hardy also lit up the scoreboard in the game’s later minutes, both finishing the night with 11 and 12 points, respectively. 

“Credit to them, they’re hitting tough shots,” Metheny said. “(Hardy), he hit a couple of tough ones that sometimes you’ve just got to live with, and you’ve got to give him credit on that.”

There wasn’t much the Flames could do to slow down UTEP in the final 10 minutes, with the Miners sinking shots and forcing takeaways left and right. The Miners finished the day 23-of-35 from the field and 6-of-15 from three, with seven assists to add to it. 

Photo by Noah Seidlitz | Brody Peebles

“We played pretty good defense,” McKay said. “They shot better from the 3-point line than they have in a while, but they had a lot of juice and a lot of freedom after coming off a win at Jacksonville State, and they played like there was nothing to lose.”

As time drained from the clock, McKay stood by the bench with his arms crossed, visibly unhappy with his team’s efforts against one of the conference’s weaker opponents. His group allowed 23 points on 17 turnovers, a figure the team hasn’t put up all season. 

“It’s just an uncharacteristic stat line,” McKay said. “We’re not going to win many games with nine  assists and 17 turnovers.”

Now, the Flames will have limited time to recover before heading to Murfreesboro for a battle with Middle Tennessee March 5, who is also seeking redemption for an 81-64 loss to Sam Houston Saturday night. The Flames will then return to Lynchburg for their regular-season finale against Western Kentucky, celebrating Senior Night in front of the home crowd March 9 at 1 p.m.

Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X

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