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Women’s basketball makes one final push towards C-USA tournament

File Photo / The Prospector

In Conference USA there are 14 teams competing for a spot in the league tournament that is held at the end of each season, and only two of out the 14 schools will be left behind. UTEP’s women’s basketball team currently holds the 12th and final spot in the conference with Florida International right on their heels at 13th.

With only six games remaining in UTEP’s 2016-2017 campaign, every time the young Miners lace their sneakers up, it  could qualify as a must-win game.

After UTEP’s (6-18, 3-9 C-USA) dreadful four-game road trip, which all resulted in losses, the Miners tied their season-worst losing streak of the year. Still searching for a win in the month of February, head coach Keitha Adams and her unit will look for answers when the team begins their final four games at home, which could be the most important set of games all year.

Although the young Miners have not “protected” the Don Haskins Center as the fans are usually accustomed with, they still have most of their wins at home (5-6). First, UTEP will welcome  North Texas on Feb. 16.

UNT (9-14, 6-6 C-USA) has been subpar on the road so far, only winning three out of 10 games away from Denton. Two of their away victories could have gone either way as UNT needed overtime to secure both wins.

This circles back to the Mean Green offense that is almost dead last in the conference in points per game, with 61.2 averaged per game. UNT’s leading scorer Terriell Bradley (13.4 points per contest) is the lone Mean Green athlete to find herself in the top-25 in scoring in C-USA.

Bradley will get her first date with the Miners, as this is her first year with UNT after she transferred from the University of Kansas.

On the other hand, UTEP has one of the most gifted scorers in C-USA in senior Sparkle Taylor, who averages 16.4 points per game,  and averages over 18 points in conference play. Taylor anchors the Miners’ offense to put up over 64 on the scoreboard each outing.

UTEP possesses an advantage in its rebounding game. The Miners come up with 40 rebounds per matchup, compared to UNT’s 32.8. It will give the Miners more opportunity to put the ball in the bucket.

However, as the Miners are riding in after losing six out their last seven matchups in the season, UNT is coming into El Paso with a season-best three-game winning streak.

Still relatively new to this C-USA battle is second-year head coach of UNT Jalie Mitchell, who came up short against Adams last season. This season, both Adams and Mitchell will give it another shot with two different looking teams and with both losing key players from last year’s squads.

Next, the Miners will face the Rice Owls (14-9, 5-7 C-USA), who are only a couple of games ahead of UTEP on the ladder. The Owls own the best defense in all of C-USA, as they are the only team to allow less than 60 points per game to their opponents (58.9). Their stifling defense may cause many headaches for Adams and her team.

The Owls specialize in defending the long-range shot. In 22 games, Rice has given up only 101 3s and forced teams to shoot under 30 percent from that range.

Rice also has one of the more experienced teams in the league, with only three freshmen filling the roster. That is in comparison to UTEP’s eight first-year players on the roster. The Owls like to use their first-quarter efforts to pull away from their opponents early on, as they have outscored teams by 100 in the opening period, 372-272. UTEP will need to start out fast to keep pace with the team from Houston.

For UTEP’s season finale at home, the last two schools standing on the schedule are the bottom two teams in C-USA, Florida Atlantic and Florida International. The contests between the Miners and the two Florida teams could possibly decide which university will receive the last seed in the C-USA tournament.

When the Miners played both Florida schools earlier in the season, it was the first time in school history that UTEP competed in back-to-back games that were decided by one point.

FAU’s last victory came against Jackson State on Dec. 16. Since then, the Owls’ ailing season has resulted in 13 straight losses. Yet to earn a win in conference play, FAU (4-19, 0-12 C-USA) will likely be playing the spoiler role, hoping to put an end to another team’s season or force their opponents to fall in the standings.

Earlier this season, UTEP trailed by as many as 13 points to FAU, but battled back for the narrow win, 51-50. The game consisted of five ties and nine lead changes, along with a game-winning opportunity for the Owls in the closing seconds. But it was the Miners that came out on top at the end of the day.

Taylor was shut down by FAU’s defensive schemes, as she had a season-low of eight. In Taylor’s unusual showing, it was UTEP’s junior forward Tamara Seda that willed the Miners to complete the comeback, with her third-straight double-double at the time (13 points and 14 rebounds).

UTEP held the Owls to 28.8 percent from the floor and used a 15-8 third-quarter run to break-even from the winless FAU squad. On Feb. 23, the rematch will be held at the Don Haskins Center at 7:05 p.m.

Finally, with the most anticipated rematch of the season, the orange and blue will be seeking revenge from a half-court shot in triple overtime that sent the Miners home with a stunning defeat from FIU.

In a finish that was featured in ESPN SportsCenter’s top 10, Adam’s unit led for 40 out of the 55 minutes of action, but a 13-1 run by the Panthers made it possible for the contest to go into extra time, where a half-court 3-point shot sunk the Miners in triple-OT.

The Miners’ top three scorers against the Panthers, Taylor (21), sophomore guard Najala Howell (19) and Seda (14) were not enough to put away FIU’s duo of Kristian Hudson and Tianah Alvarado, which combined for 56.

If things go the way that Adams and her team hopes they will, with a little bit of skill, luck and revenge, the UTEP women’s basketball team could win enough of these final four games to make the conference tournament, which begins on March 8, in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Women’s basketball makes one final push towards C-USA tournament