Back in the hunt for title

"(Success) just comes down to having good players and us working hard. It’s a lot of little things that make it happen." - Keitha Adams, UTEP women’s basketball head coach

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Aaron Montes / The Prospector

Junior guard Cameasha Turner drives the ball to the rim on the Women’s basketball exhibition game on Nov. 2 against St. Mary’s(TX).

Luis Barrio, Contributor

After a 22-10 season last year, the UTEP women’s basketball team is looking to come back and fight once again for the title in Conference USA.

The Miners return four of their starters from last season, including two key players that are back from injuries, sophomore guard Jenzel Nash and senior center Kristine Vitola—both had ACL injuries that kept them off the court last season. They return this year with high hopes.

Vitola had a longer offseason than the rest of the team because of her injury, but is working to get backup to game speed.

“I’m getting better every day and getting that confidence back. I’m looking to get that feel for basketball again since I haven’t played in so long,” Vitola said. “Even without an injury, there is always something to improve. Right now, I have to work a little more.”

This season tips off on Nov. 8, when the Miners play Division II team UT-Permian Basin. UTEP will play eight of their first nine games at home. The away game in that stretch is against archrival New Mexico State.

On Dec. 20-21, The Miners will travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to participate in the Puerto Rico Classic, where they will take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Belmont Bruins.

Just before conference play begins, the team will travel to College Station on Jan. 2, to take on 2011 national champions, the Texas A&M Aggies.

“We will have face some strong competition this year, but it’s going to help us get better and better before getting into our conference schedule,” said head coach Keitha Adams. “(Success) just comes down to having good players and us working hard, the help of my staff and administration. It’s a lot of little things that make it happen.”

Conference play is crucial in dictating the success of a squad. Newcomers Middle Tennessee State were dubbed preseason favorites, with UTEP picked to finish second in the league by the coaches. They both square off on Jan. 15 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and perhaps the most entertaining game will be Feb. 8, when the Miners host Florida International and the nation’s reigning leading scorer, senior Jerica Coley, who averaged 26.3 points per game last season.

However, Adams knows success. The Miners have not experienced a losing season since the 2005-06 campaign. She is the all-time women’s win leader in program history. Both conference championships in program history are under her tenure. In 2011-12, she led the team to a school record for most wins in women’s and men’s basketball, with a 29-4 season.

Fans are in for some bonus home-court basketball games. For the second time in four years. The Miners will host the Conference Tournament that leads up to the Big Dance in March.

Last year, the Miners lost in the quarterfinals to Houston. The conference, however, has been completely re-vamped, and with home-court advantage the Miners could be one of the favorites based on their returners and preseason ranking.

To make sure that her team is prepared for this jam-packed season, Adams sticks to an old-school mentality of fundamentals that’s been proven to work for her squads in previous seasons.

“You got to go hard. You have to go at game speed,” Adams said. “We try to instill fundamentals and teach in our system to where we’re all on the same page.”

She said that in college basketball it’s the concept of a team that results in success. Individuals cannot win games on their own. It’s a solid foundation that must be sustained and embedded in the players.

“We’re excited about having Jenzel and Kristine back,” Adams said. “It feels great having them on the floor. We’ve got a good nucleus of returners coming back and I’m extremely excited about our newcomers.”

One of those newcomers is freshman point guard Stacie Telles, who will be playing as a junior this season. She is a local girl who played at Burges High School. She transferred from New Mexico Junior College, a team she helped get back-to-back Western Junior College Athletic Conference championships.

“Stacie has been a real bright addition to our team, Annette (Kirsteine) is a good shooter and we’ve got size in Marta (Oledzka) and Agata (Dobrowolska),” Adams said. “Overall, I like the talent we have on the court, it’s just a matter of all of us working and figuring things out.”

Among the pool of talent, another key player to keep an eye on this season will be senior forward Kayla Thornton, who was dubbed preseason first team for the second consecutive year. Thornton averaged a solid 15.3 points per game to go along with a strong rebounding presence at nearly nine per game.

“I’m just doing what coach wants me to do for the team, to be a blue collar player and work hard and produce every night,” Thornton said.

To maintain her high level of play each year, Thornton said it is the little things that matter.

“Not getting frustrated, moving on from bad plays and worry about what I have to do,” Thornton said.

The Miners defeated St. Mary’s 81-51 in their exhibition game, where every player got to play. The first important test for the Miners will be on Nov. 12 and 16 when they face New Mexico State and Kansas State, respectively.

Luis Barrio may be reached at [email protected]