EL PASO, Texas — With UTEP down two points on a pair of occasions with under three minutes, North Texas redshirt freshman Umoja Gibson connected on a pair of late three-point buckets as the Mean Green (16-1, 3-0 Conference USA) got by the Miners (5-9, 0-3 C-USA), 58-51, on Thursday night at the Don Haskins Center.
UTEP fell down by as many as 13 points at the 13:34 mark of the second half, but kept battling all night. UTEP held UNT to its second lowest point total of the season and fewest first half points. The Miners also blocked a season-high eight shots.
“The fifty-fifty balls were critical for us. We knew coming in that this was a team that thrives on fifty-fifty balls. This team here that we played tonight they really understand what it takes to win. They have gotten a taste of it so they know what it’s all about,” first-year UTEP Head Coach Rodney Terry said. “Right now, we have a small margin of error in terms of whether or not we don’t come up with the possession or we miss a layup. Those are really deflating plays for us right now because of where we are. You know our guys competed, and I cannot fault our effort. The one thing that I want our guys to stay dialed in is that we are right there in critical times you can’t have your hand down on a guy that we know can shoot the basketball. You have to be bought in 100 percent, and our guys are learning right now the process of what it’s going to take to win.”
The two squads went into the locker room tied 22-22, but North Texas outscored UTEP, 36-29, during the second period, shooting over 55 percent (5-9) from downtown after a 1-for-6 outing in the first.
Freshman Jordan Lathon made his way back into the starting lineup after missing a pair of games due to a hamstring injury. Lathon responded with nine points, four rebounds and a game-high four assists. With the score 53-48, Lathon came up with a clutch trey at the 1:49 mark to get his squad within two points (53-51).
Gibson, after starting the game 2-for-6, connected on a three at the 2:12 mark after Efe Odigie hit a jumper to make the score 50-48. Gibson then answered Lathon’s three with another to put the game away and the Mean Green up by five points (56-51) with just over a minute remaining in the ball game.
Odigie blocked a career-high four shots, while leading the Miners with 13 points and eight rebounds. Nigel Hawkins scored 11 points, while tallying three rebounds and three assists. Evan Gilyard was held to single digits (eight points), but grabbed six boards. Ountae Campbell played 21 minutes off the bench, scoring five points and dishing out three assists. Kaosi Ezeagu played 14 minutes and chipped in with two points, two blocks and three rebounds.
North Texas entered the contest with a plus-six rebounding edge, as it outrebounded UTEP, 43-28.
“We definitely addressed [rebounding] after the game. In terms of size, size has nothing to do with it. At the end of the day it’s what is inside that chest,” Terry said. “You have to have a lot of heart, you have to fight, and you have to compete. They have some guys over there who are older, and they do that at a very high level, and they understand that is a big part of winning. We are trying to teach our guys the nuances of what it takes to win. Especially in close games and what you have to do to close games.”
The Mean Green also outscored the Miners, 28-16, in the paint and 16-10 from the bench. The Miners, however, forced 19 UNT turnovers, after averaging only 12.6 on the season.
The Miners led by as many as nine points (12-3) eight minutes into the ball game after an Odigie jumper. But UNT outscored UTEP, 19-10, the rest of the way.
Roosevelt Smart and Gibson each scored 13 points to lead their squad, while Michael Miller added 11 points and Zachary Simmons 10. Ryan Woolridge and Gibson each tallied seven rebounds, while Jorden Duffy chipped in with six boards.
UTEP will conclude its three-game C-USA home stand with a matchup against another Texas rival Rice on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Haskins Center.