Record-setting season comes to a close


Michaela Roman

Sparkle Taylor (left), Cameasha Turner (middle) and Chrishauna Parker (right) celebrate 66-63 victory over South Dakota State on April 2.

Luis Barrio, Staff Reporter

The 2013-2014 women’s basketball team may go down as one the greatest women’s team in the 40-year program history. The achievements of this team go beyond all the records they have broken this season. This team attracted people in droves during its post-season tale. Dreams were fulfilled, expectations were surpassed and memories were made.

It begins with head coach Keitha Adams. Don Haskins created UTEP men’s basketball in El Paso. He was called “The Bear.” During the WNIT tournament, a fan carried a sign that said “Mama Bear,” referring to coach Adams. The only postseason appearances the team has had has been through the work of coach Adams. She has two NCAA tournament appearances with multiple regular season and conference titles to go along with a runner-up finish in the largest tournament for college basketball after the NCAA tournament.

UTEP will say goodbye to the winningest senior class in program history.  Forward Kayla Thornton, center Kristine Vitola and guard Kelli Willingham leave with a just under 100 total victories. Thornton and Willingham finish with a 96-36 record, while Vitola finished her five years at UTEP with a 93-42 record.

“It’s unbelievable. I had four great years and for me to end it all here, it’s a blessing,” Thornton said. “Like I told my teammates, God put us through this for a reason and I’m fortunate to have a team like that and to be coached by three great coaches.”

Thornton’s competitiveness and desire to win is what has made her the program’s all-time leading scorer. She leads on the court by example and after their loss to Rutgers in the WNIT final, she had nice, encouraging words for her teammates, according to Keitha Adams.

“I told her I was so proud of her and everything we’ve done these past two weeks. It’s surpassed everything I could ever imagine what we’ve experienced these past two weeks,” Adams said. “She’s a warrior. Her competitiveness has really helped this program these past four years.”

The Miners finished the season with a record 29 victories. It was the most victories of any team in Conference USA this season. The rock of the team, the one holding down the fort in the paint, was Vitola. The one who’s played more games in Miner history than any other woman to put on a jersey.

Vitola led the team in scoring during the postseason and is the third Miner in program history to boast 900-plus points (941), 600-plus boards (617) and 100-plus blocks (190).

“I think it’s great to finish your season at home. I’m very grateful for my last game to be a sold-out Don Haskins Center,” Vitola said.

With Willingham, you would get a solid mistake-free performance every game. Willingham wraps up her run in the Sun City holding school records for starts (117) and 3-point shots made (215). She also joined former Miner great Jareica Hughes, as women in the 40-year history of the program who can boast 1,000-plus points (1,073) and 300-plus assists (373).

Among other records broken this season was the largest win in school history a 92-43 win over Northern Arizona, and just a few days before they had routed the Kansas State Wildcats 84-39, which is the third-biggest margin of victory in the program’s history.

This team was able to rally a home crowd that provided UTEP the opportunity to host every WNIT postseason game. Based on the record UTEP had coming into the tournament and its fan support, no other school UTEP faced could compete for a host game.

UTEP enjoyed back-to-back sellouts, a first in program history. Fans were waiting to buy tickets to the semifinal matchup against South Dakota State from at least 5 a.m. the day of the game. The championship game sold out in less than two hours after that the South Dakota State game.

“I thought it brought us together. I think one of the things I loved most about this is I saw a lot of young kids. I saw a lot of families. I think it’s great that those kids have been exposed to UTEP,” Adams said. “They’ve been exposed to a great college atmosphere. People that have never come to a women’s basketball game that now have are now excited and see women’s basketball in a different way.”

The head coach of Rutgers, C. Vivian Stringer, has been to the NCAA Final Four, tallied more than 930 victories and is a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and she left El Paso with encouraging words UTEP fans would love to hear.

“They really truly are an outstanding team–a great coaching job. I think easily that UTEP could be an NCAA team, like so many other teams,” Stringer said.

Women’s basketball usually has a difficult time drawing attention and crowds like UTEP was able to accomplish this season. Now the goal is to sustain that success and fan support for seasons to come.

Luis Barrio may be reached at [email protected]