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Women finish season in Birmingham after loss to Old Dominion

Gaby Velasquez

For the second straight year, the UTEP women’s basketball team gets upended and eliminated from the Conference USA tournament by Old Dominion. This year the Miners’ rocky season came to an end with an 80-70 loss to the Monarchs.

UTEP (8-23, 5-14 C-USA) finished with their fewest wins in over a decade in program history. Last season the Miners lost nine players from their C-USA regular season championship team, including the loss of all five starters who helped earn head coach Keitha Adams the impressive 29-5 overall record (16-2 C-USA) in 2015-16.

Due to the departures of different key players, Adams rebooted her depth chart with 12 athletes that competed in their first year of Division 1 basketball for the 2016-17 season, six being true freshman. Only four players from last year’s squad were present on the roster this year and none were considered reliable starters before this season.

The captain going into this season, guard Jenzel Nash, did not play in one game her whole senior year due to a bank fraud investigation. As a junior, Nash earned a 2016 All C-USA first team honor, while averaging a team-high in points (13.8), 5.6 rebounds per game and nearly three assists per night. Nash’s suspension for the 2016-17 season added more pressure on the young Miners’ shoulder from the get-go.

However, UTEP sent off their lone active senior Sparkle Taylor with a strong year. This season, Taylor averaged a team-high 18 points per game (20.2 points per game in conference outings), 6.3 rebounds per contest and an All C-USA second team reward to show for her final year.

The freshman that stood out for Adams’ unit in the down year, is 6-foot-2 forward from Poland, Zuzanna Puc, who started 24 out of the 31 total games. In Puc’s freshman season, she put up 6.4 points per game, snatched 5.3 rebounds per game and recorded the third most blocks on the team (23 total).

Katarina Zec, UTEP’s freshman guard, started in 18 contests and was one of the Miners’ best shooters throughout the season. Zec knocked down the second most three-pointers on the roster with 19 made from the arc. She also contributed 5.9 points per game.

Zec and Puc, along with the many new faces on the team, made this season a rebuilding year for the orange and blue; but, growth and strides were taken from the year of learning.

To start off the rebuilding year, UTEP participated in their strongest non-conference schedule in school history. The Miners’ non-conference schedule ranked 61st overall in the nation.

The 2016 Paradise Jam was the first test of the year for the inexperienced Miners. Throughout the first weekend tournament of the year, UTEP had to go through Louisiana State University (20-11 regular season record), NC State (22-8), who is currently ranked no. 19 in the nation, and finished off with Kansas State (22-10). All three opponents combined for a record of 64-29. UTEP lost all three games by 15 points of more.

For the second tournament to kick off the new year, UTEP traveled to Niceville, Florida, for the Patrick Harrington Invitational. Pittsburgh and Alabama were scheduled to battle against the Miners. UTEP came up short by 25 points and 18 points in the tournament, respectively.

It was the first time in school history that UTEP played five power conference universities, which the Miners lost all of them.

Quickly after the two big tournaments, conference play began with a date against UTSA on Jan 1.

UTEP kicked off the winning three out of their first league games (3-5), but hit a bump in the road when the Miners packed their bags for a four-game road trip, starting with UAB, on Feb. 2. From then on, the orange and blue lost a season-worst six in row, and three of the contests were decided by double digits.

It was not until the second go around with the Florida schools, FAU and FIU, that the Miners finally achieved their first back-to-back victories of the season by overcoming the only two universities that were left out of the C-USA tournament. It came with only four remaining games on the schedule.

To end the regular season, UTEP lost their final two games against Old Dominion and Charlotte. However, the Miners did just enough to receive a bid in the league tournament by getting the 11th seed out of the 12 seeds available. The only team under UTEP in the playoffs was Marshall since UTEP won the tiebreaker by beating them earlier in the season 84-74.

When the 2017 Conference USA Championships was set, UTEP mustered up a meeting with the six-seeded Monarchs.UTEP did not have the firepower or will in the fourth quarter to keep up with the league player of the year, Jennie Simms, and her offense that averages 70 points per night.

On offense, the Miners finished in the bottom four of scoring (65.6 points per game), and they struggled on the defensive end of the ball all season long, giving up the third-worst average in C-USA (71.3 points per game). The three-point shot is crucial in this era of basketball, and the Miners shot only 27 percent as a team from beyond the arc. As a result, the orange and blue’s scoring margin was a negative 5.7 to end the season.

Some bright spot is the rebounding put together from the women’ team. UTEP averaged the second most boards (39.7) per game, with 1,190 total rebounds. Adams’ unit finished third in blocks (4.3 per game and 130 total).

Now as one of the youngest teams in C-USA, UTEP has the opportunity to rebuild for next year. The only athlete on the roster who is a senior is Taylor.

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Gaby Velasquez, Photo editor
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Women finish season in Birmingham after loss to Old Dominion