Home court advantage has UTEP aiming for NCAA tournament bid

Edwin Delgado, Sports Editor

After a season plagued by injuries in 2013, the UTEP women’s basketball team is hoping to close 2014 on a much better note.

The regular season title is out of reach for the Miners, as Middle Tennessee State has secured the No. 1 spot in the conference with a 14-1 conference record with only one more game to play. The Miners have secured no less than a No. 3 seed for the conference tournament and can secure a second place with a win on March 5 when they take on the Florida Atlantic Owls on the road.

The Miners (23-5, 12-3 in Conference USA) will have a week of rest until they appear in the conference tournament on March 13 in the quarterfinals.

“We’ve been working on game situations. That’s really important, you need to be able to execute and do things down the stretch,” said head coach Keitha Adams. “As you get into this part of the year, these things are important things.”

Having secured a double—bye, the Miners will play their first game in the quarterfinal round. This will be the only game the Miners will play at Memorial Gym. Semifinals and the championship game of the women’s tournament will be played at the Don Haskins Center.

If the current standings remain after the last game, the highest possible seeds for the Miners would be: No. 7 Old Dominion in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Southern Mississippi in the semifinals and No.1 Middle Tennessee State in the final, but if UTEP falls to third place in conference, they could face Charlotte (the only conference opponent to defeat UTEP at home this season) instead in the quarterfinals.

“There are a lot of good teams in conference and we can’t overlook anyone,” said senior guard Kelli Willingham. “We just need to play our game and take care of business.”

Senior Kayla Thornton missed the last two games due to a concussion, but is expected to be back in time for the conference tournament.

Adams said that she is excited to play in both the Memorial Gym and the Don Haskins, especially after the increased number of fans showing up for the last couple of games of the season.

“This last few games we had over 5,000 passionate fans and we’re excited to play here at home,” Adams said. “We have a good relationship with our community and our fan base.”

The three seniors, Thorton, Willingham and Kristine Vitola, have been part of a team that has won 90 games in the past four years and formed part of the team that won the conference and went to the NCAA tournament in 2012.

“We still have a lot to work and improve on, but if there is one thing I know about my players is that they are great competitors and never give up,” Adams said. “At the end of the day, the team that puts a good little run together will win the tournament…I believe our best basketball is still ahead of us.”

For more information about the Conference USA Women’s basketball championship, visit www.conferenceusa.com/championships/w-baskbl-championship.

Edwin Delgado may be reached at [email protected]