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Women’s basketball opens up nine-game road trip at Arkansas State

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Women’s basketball opens up nine-game road trip at Arkansas State

The Miners are off to a 5-1 start on the 2017-18 season.

The Miners are off to a 5-1 start on the 2017-18 season.

Gaby Velasquez

The Miners are off to a 5-1 start on the 2017-18 season.

Gaby Velasquez

Gaby Velasquez

The Miners are off to a 5-1 start on the 2017-18 season.

Jeremy Carranco, Sports Editor

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The UTEP women’s basketball team is off to a 5-1 start. The team has enjoyed playing all six of their games at home to open up the 2017-18 campaign, but now the Miners are on the road for their next nine games with their first test coming against Arkansas State this afternoon.

“We are excited about it, the mentality we have when we try and protect our home court is the same mentality we will have to have against our opponents on the road at their place,” said UTEP’s junior guard Najala Howell. “I feel that if we carry that mentality and stay focused, then we’ll do good on the road.”

UTEP battled with Arkansas State during both of the Miners’ recent WNIT runs (2014, 2016). The Miners met the Red Wolves in round one in 2014 and came out on top 74-64, led by 28 points from UTEP’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder Kayla Thornton, who now plays in the WNBA for the Dallas Wings. In 2016, UTEP met Arkansas State in the second round, winning yet again 74-68.

The Redwolves (3-4) are led this season by 19-year head coach Brian Boyer, who has captured four Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year honors (2003-04, 2004-05, 2013-14 & 2015-16). Boyer is also the Sun Belt Conference’s all-time win leader in women’s college basketball, with 306 overall wins and 176 conference victories.

As for the players, Arkansas State is led by leading scorer Akasha Westbrook, who averages 13.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. In the Redwolves’ recent loss at Ole Miss (74-48), Westbrook was held in check, scoring just two points.

Capturing a double-double this season in four consecutive games, UTEP’s Tamara Seda has been just what her team has expected her to be.

Seda needed to come into this new season and be the driving force on both offense and defense this season in order for her team to rebound from a very disappointing 2016-17 campaign (9-23, 5-13 C-USA).

Seda has been the Miners’ leading scorer in three of the team’s six contests. The senior earned her fourth straight double-double (18 points, 16 rebounds) in her team’s victory over the Houston Baptist Huskies this past Saturday afternoon.

Seda has 93 points and three blocks on the season, both team highs. The Maputo, Mozambique, native is also averaging a team-leading 15.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

The Miners’ best win so far on the young season came against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Nov. 24, at 64-61 in game one of the UTEP Thanksgiving Classic. The victory gave the UTEP women’s basketball program their first win over an SEC team in school history.

The lone loss for the Miners came to rival New Mexico on Nov. 30 at the Don Haskins Center. The Lobos held the Miners to a season-low 25 percent (11-44) from the floor, notching 22 points off a season-high 25 UTEP turnovers.

Turnovers continued to be an issue in the Miners’ most recent win against Houston Baptist (69-62). The Miners committed 22 turnovers, which led to 21 Huskie points. UTEP will need to clean up their sloppy play if they want to be more efficient on offense.

UTEP’s first-year head coach Kevin Baker said, following his team’s 69-62 victory over Houston Baptist, that he simply can’t explain why his team has turned the ball over so many times in every game this season. So far, the 5-1 Miners have committed 121 turnovers in six games combined.

“I think it’s going to be our thing (problem) all year, I cannot explain it any more than a fan watching it can,” he said. “What I can say is that our players are trying really hard and sometimes we make a few mistakes. We will try and figure out a way to lessen those turnovers because we scored 69 points with 22 turnovers (speaking about HBU game), so we obviously left points on the court.”

Junior Najala Howell has come around nicely for the Miners as well. Howell hit four huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of what was a very close contest against Houston Baptist. Howell has seemed to come around and hit big 3’s in crunch time for UTEP early on this season. The junior leads the team in 3­-pointers made (11) and is second in 3-point field goal percentage (.524).

“Naj (Howell) just seems to find a way to hit a big shot and to make a clutch play,” Baker said. “There’s good and bad, but more good. It’s going to give me gray hairs at times, but she’s a winner as well and you want her on the floor in crunch time because she is going to make something good happen.”

The “bad” that Baker is referring to are the turnovers Howell has committed, coming at times when the guard may be trying a little too hard to push the ball down the court. The DeSoto, Texas, native is third on the team in turnovers with 18, after Katarina Zec (21) and Seda (20).

After playing at Arkansas State, the Miners will travel back west to take on Battle of I-10 rival New Mexico State on Sunday, Dec. 10 at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces. The Aggies (2-5) defeated the Miners last season 67-59 in El Paso, but the Miners were victorious the last time the two rivals met in Las Cruces (71-65) in 2015.

NMSU has already compiled as many losses as they had all of last season (26-5). The Aggies in 2016-17 won the WAC regular-season and tournament championships before falling to No. 2 seed Arizona State 74-52 in the Sioux Falls region of the NCAA Tournament.

Former head coach Mark Trakh departed to USC to become the Trojans’ head coach following the strong season, and NMSU then hired Brooke Atkinson as the 11th head coach in program history. Atkinson spent eight years as an assistant coach for NMSU from 2003-11.

Leading scorers for the Aggies this season are Brooke Salas and Gia Pack, who both average 16.9 points per game. Salas leads the team in rebounding with an average of 9.1 boards per game.

Tip-off against Arkansas State is set for 4 p.m. MST Tuesday and 2 p.m. MST against New Mexico State on Sunday.

The Miners will not play a home game until Jan. 11, 2018, when the team returns to El Paso for their Conference-USA home opener against Charlotte.

Follow Jeremy Carranco on Twitter @jacarranco_.

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Women’s basketball opens up nine-game road trip at Arkansas State